The Moosewood Cookbook: A Cookbook, An Obsession, A Soup

In 1977, while a student, I lived in a Quonset hut in Portland, Oregon. My bedroom was painted white; the bed a mattress on the floor topped with a quilt made by my grandmother. On sunny mornings, rainbows danced on the curved white walls, refracting off crystals hanging in the room’s one small window.

Shortly after moving into the Quonset, I totaled my classic VW beetle in a car accident, seriously injuring my knee. Surgery repaired the knee, but left me in a full leg cast for months. I spent way more time in the Quonset bedroom than I’d ever planned.

To cheer me up, a friend gave me The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen. Now a classic, in 1977 The Moosewood Cookbook had just been published. I spent hours pouring over its intricately decorated hand-lettered pages, entranced by the ethnic recipes and liberal use of herbs and spices.

Mollie Katzen

Mollie Katzen

By the time I could walk and drive again, I’d read The Moosewood Cookbook so many times I felt as if I had an intimate personal relationship with Mollie Katzen. Mollie delighted in cooking, as did I; her joy and enthusiasm freed me to openly celebrate my passion for food. In 1977, before celebrity chefs, cable TV, and blogging made food zeal commonplace, Mollie’s far-off support was rare and liberating.

Gypsy Soup was the first recipe I made from The Moosewood Cookbook, and I still regularly make my adapted version of it. Mollie described it as “a spiced and delectable brew of Spanish and Dickensonian origins.” I’ve been puzzling over this description for 34 years.

With chickpeas, vegetables, and Moorish spices, the soup’s Spanish origins are obvious. Mario Batali’s 2008 book Spain: A Culinary Road Trip contains a recipe for Gypsy Potage that is first cousin to Mollie’s Gypsy Soup. Batali’s soup has chickpeas in a broth seasoned with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and paprika and is finished with salt cod (bacalao).

Batali waxes eloquent about his soup’s origins: “[This soup] displays the gypsy kitchen’s particular combination of modesty and brazen flavor. Not unlike flamenco, the great music whose roots lie deep in gypsy culture, la comida gitana is soulful and rhythmic, heartwarming, and satisfying to be around.”

Gypsy Soup is definitely rooted in Spain. What, however, did Mollie’s reference to the soup’s “Dickensonian” origins mean? If I were actually friends with her, I’d’ve asked years ago. As it is, I’ve polled everyone I know. We agree the reference is to Dickens, and probably to the London soup kitchens that started in Dickens’ era. But if that’s the case, couldn’t every soup be called “Dickensonian?” Why single out this soup? Especially since its bold flavors, as Batali makes clear, are a far cry from what one might find in Dickens’ London. The logic escapes me.

Why I care is probably just as good a question as what Mollie meant by “Dickensonian.” I first read The Moosewood Cookbook when just out of the hospital and still taking pain pills. I started obsessing about “Dickensonian” then and have never gotten over it. And, no, I can’t just let it go, though have largely relegated it to the “it’s a mystery” category of life’s conundrums.

Gypsy Soup, regardless of its origins, is delicious. I’ve made it many times over the years, and have never been disappointed.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:


23 Responses to The Moosewood Cookbook: A Cookbook, An Obsession, A Soup

  1. You got me curious about Dickensonian now, so I referenced it, and I came up with the idea that Charles Dickens wrote about meager existence, how pheasants ate brothy and ‘what they had’ type soups, and they ate to survive…seems to make sense to me 🙂

    I am making this soup, and I love paprika, as well as cumin, I put them in my meat balls and pasta sauce!

    Thanks for this!

  2. Laurie-
    I enjoyed reading how you discovered the Moosewood Cookbook. I also came across it during a difficult period in my life. Due to some not so good career decisions I found myself working as a dishwasher at a children’s camp in California. I found if I finished up the dishes early, the kitchen staff would let me make the staff Vegetarian lunch. I had never done much cooking and the only Vegetarian Cookbook they had was Moosewood. I nearly cooked every recipe in the book during those four months. It was a great learning experience. The Vegetarians did not get much love from the kitchen, so they were so grateful for anything I made, even if I screwed it up. Each time I cook from it now I think of the people I cooked for at the camp. I don’t think I have made Gypsy Stew since. I might have to try it again soon.

    • Great story Nicole. A nice reminder of the days when cookbooks and recipes weren’t as easy to come by as they are now.

  3. Mmmm…. I need a cold, rainy day to make this. Shouldn’t be a problem in Seattle. Tell me please, what are those tasty-looking oatcake-like things next to the bowl?

  4. Love this. I’ve recently bought a copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, so I can picture what you’re writing about.

    I’ve long since given up on the idea that Americans speak the same language as we do here, so this thought may not be relevant: in England, we’d say Dickensian – maybe it’s not Dickens at all, maybe it’s someone else entirely. Although looking at the recipe, the spices resonate strongly with 19th century English cooking, if not so much the vegetables. I fear you’re right, that it’s going to be one of life’s mysteries (although you could write MK a fan letter and ask her?)

    Whatever, the soup looks good


    • Americans would also say Dickensian, so yes, the term “Dickensonian” is a partial cause of my befuddlement. For awhile, I thought it might be a reference to Dickinson College, but couldn’t find any connection between Mollie Katzen and Dickinson, so decided that probably wasn’t the case. As for the spicing, I didn’t realize it was typical of 19th century English cooking. That’s quite interesting. I need to go crack some books. Thanks!

  5. I grew up with soups like this one. I really enjoyed your story and agree with Joan.

    Thanks for reminding me of this soup which has long been forgotten since my mom passed on.

  6. The Moosewood Cookbooks are legendary. This soup would be so satisfying right about now.

  7. Jackie Davies says:

    I too found the Moosewood Cookbook shortly after it was published. My partner and I, several years later, even went to the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca while on holiday – in fact it was the main destination of our holiday (we live in Ontario). And yes, Molly’s Dickensian reference has always been a puzzle to me too… each time I read the recipe, I wonder about it.
    Gypsy soup has been one of my standard recipes for all these years.

  8. Your essay caused triggered aa flashback to the 1970s — college, a mattress on the floor, and my cookbooks as a source of solace. The only thing missing from my flash was the Quonset hut, which would have been a welcome switch from my dark basement apartment.

    Rich, hearty soups – like precious memories – provide warmth and comfort during good times. They also can help keep us going during the inevitable difficult periods of our lives. Your essay was a good reminder for all of us. Thank you for sharing the warm memory and Mollie’s recipe for soup.

  9. Kim Metcalfe says:

    Great post, as always, Laurie! I have a much thumbed-through copy of the Moosewood Cookbook. My favorite recipe is the tabouli salad. I’ve been making it for YEARS and still love it.

    • Moosewood does have a reliably good tabouli recipe; I understand why you’re still making it. I should have mentioned I first learned to make spanakopita from the Moosewood Cookbook. It was one of my potluck specialties – cottage cheese in the filling and all. Little I knew then how much spanakopita I would end up making in my life!

  10. Lori R. made this for our roadtrip to the Klondike last year – the team loved it. I’ve made it since, but will use your adaptation next time. Thanks!

  11. there are some cookbooks that will always be more well-thumbed than others – my favorite pre-celeb-chef is delia smith, for her passion to cook simple comforting meals, and i have been thumbing my copies of her first books for 25 years already; i never tire of reading them, and i still cook my favorites from them

  12. Wow, speaking of flashbacks…you in your Quonset & I in my chicken house, with my pantry built out of the lumber from your (finally unnecessary) “handicap” ramp. Moosewood was our go-to for so many things in those days–I still make the mushroom moussaka once in awhile.
    I have been enjoying your website & blog tremendously but have been too work crazy to post my props to you–so KUDOs! I hope we get to cook together again soon–

  13. What an awesome story – I lucked out and found The Moosewood cookbook at the Friend’s of the Library bookstore. I love it!!!!

    I want to eat this soup. right. now.

  14. Hey – thanks for this! Really nice.

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