Many, even those in Buddhist circles, know Deborah Madison by “the book”—the New York Times best-selling Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which was first published in 1997, with more than a thousand meat-free recipes. What many still don’t realize, however, is that Madison spent nearly twenty years living as a student at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she served as head cook and later the first chef of Greens Restaurant. Greens, which served all-vegetarian dishes before locally sourced and farm-to-table were the cool thing to do, has become a Bay Area institution since opening in 1979. In the early days, Madison balanced the rigorous demands of dinner service and training Zen students as kitchen assistants with early-morning zazen. 

Madison, who left the community in the eighties and now describes herself as a “recovering Zen student,” reflects on her monastic years and beyond in her memoir An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables. She tells the stories of the early years of American Zen, and the importance that food played in creating a community among mainly convert Buddhists who had not grown up in the tradition: “I never saw a Zen student turn down chocolate cake, buttery mashed potatoes, or a plate of cheese enchiladas. Foods like these were powerful attractors to the dinner table. Later we’d get it right again, but for the moment it was necessary to make a kind of backstitch to secure the fabric of community,” Madison writes. Woven throughout An Onion in My Pocket are reflections on what brought her to Zen, her parents’ relationships with food, as well as the vast changes in the food scene in America over the last forty years. (Madison ordered olive oil for the Zen Center directly from California’s first family of commercial producers, the Sciabicas, and writes that in order to find soy milk in the seventies, you had to venture into health food stores that smelled like fermented vegetables.)

Since leaving Zen life, Madison has gone on to write fourteen cookbooks. A chapter in An Onion in My Pocket called “My Vegetarian Dilemma” describes her ongoing uncomfortable relationship with the label “vegetarian.” Madison has served on the board of the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, and says that labels, including vegan, vegetarian, and paleo, can be divisive and exclusive, and take away from all the vibrant, wonderful, and nourishing qualities that fruits and vegetables have on their own, and that vegetarian dishes can be, in fact, for everyone to enjoy.

We’re talking at the end of the summer. What’s in your pocket these days? Seeds, mostly. I don’t have too much to harvest. We had a huge drought, and now it’s been raining. I have some dill seeds that I got from a neighbor and other seeds that I’m looking forward to planting. I’m looking at my tall, golden purslane—it’s totally disintegrated. I’m trying to water it and hoping for hot days so that it will make its little purse again. 

I’ve listened to some of the talks you’ve given on An Onion in My Pocket, mostly in foodie circles. My impression was that people not so familiar with Buddhism still view Zen eating as super austere and restaurant eating as super decadent. But I think what you’re trying to get at in the book is that both environments need to find balance and nourishment. Can you speak a bit more on that? That was true at the time, and not just at Greens—everybody was discovering cream and how delicious it was and how you could reduce it and make a pasta with cream sauce. We never did that at the Zen Center, but I always felt it should come together a little bit. That was my tact as a cook. I introduced milk and cheese and things like that, so the pancakes didn’t come out like shoe leather, which I’m sure the vegans today would be horrified about. But at the time, it was a good thing to do, I think. I was told by the abbot, [Suzuki Roshi], that when we had guests come to dinner, they should never ask, “What is that?” And it’s hard to make familiar food without some of the basic ingredients. 

Buddhism has been in the United States since the mid-19th century, but you were at Zen Center during a time when a distinct American and Western Buddhism was developing. Can you speak about offering foods that were familiar to people with Western backgrounds and also traditional temple cooking? At Zen Center we did, of course, have Asian teachers. And the cook before me did macrobiotic cooking, and it was wonderful, and I took care of the pickles when he was away. But introducing these other foods was important for people to gather at the table. We had a hybrid menu, we had hijiki [a sea vegetable] and carrots and soup and brown rice for breakfast, but we also had muffins and scrambled eggs and things like that, too. 

You write in the book that while living at SFZC’s Page Street, each house collectively decided about house rules around food. Are there any lessons like that for us today, whether we are living as a traditional family or intentional community? What questions should we be asking about the food we shop for and bring into our home? I do remember that incident quite well, when we decided as a group to be vegetarian. We had a lot of dockworkers and people who did really heavy physical work, and they wanted meat for breakfast, so they would fry bacon and chops and things like that in a small kitchen off of the main kitchen. And that offended people, so we decided we’d be vegetarian. But what people did on their own was [their own business]—you couldn’t be over their shoulder saying, “You shouldn’t eat that,” you know? I didn’t really care whether we were vegetarian or not. I was just happy to be able to cook.

And in terms of questions: are the foods that we bring into our lives benefiting the earth? Are they benefiting ourselves? 

And in many ways our consciousness has changed, because we better understand mass production and what it’s doing to the planet. And then in Buddhist circles, you have the precepts and cultural and ethical things regarding the treatment of animals, and people can start scolding real quick. Do you have any thoughts on being more flexible in our thinking? I think we do need to be a little more tolerant of each other. I tend to be vegetarian because it’s what I cook, what I know really, really well. But I’m married to someone who is not, who grew up eating steak three or four times a week. It changes. My own health has changed, too. You never know where people are at, and it pays to be more tolerant. 

You write that when you ordained in the seventies, you and others didn’t have much life experience. Do you have any advice for people who are considering monastic life? That was true. I had more experience than a lot of people, and I didn’t have very much experience. None of us did. But that’s OK, you don’t need a lot of experience, really, to practice Zen. And would I advise anybody? No, I wouldn’t. I consider myself a recovering Zen student [laughs].

Fair enough. You write about your parents and their very different relationships to food, particularly your mother growing up during the Depression. Have you noticed any trends we’ve inherited around eating and food since the COVID-19 pandemic began? I’m quite nervous that we’re going backwards. Even at our farmers market (in Santa Fe), the farmers can’t get help. They don’t have squash blossoms, because they don’t want to pick them because of the drought. I think we’re so naive about food and the labor it takes to bring it to us. And we’re going to have to come to terms with it. For example, most people don’t realize that endive is a vegetable that’s grown in two parts, the leaves are locked off and left in the field to curl up, and the roots are harvested … they’re wonderful, they’re delicious, but it’s a lot of work to do that. 

I think we also need to think about the people who are working in the fields in the terrible, terrible heat, and support them. Food is getting harder and harder to come by, and the price is going up. And the drought is going to continue in the Southwest, and California, and so on, and that affects what we eat and what we grow. 

What are you working on next? I’m working on two things now. One in grain: I’m working with a group to grow more grain that is interesting and wholesome and good for us. The other is a book, which I’m not sure what it’s going to be about yet exactly, but it is around the 72 laborers that brought us food, and the chant about us knowing how food comes to us. [Residents at the SFZC used to recite before meals a chant that went, in part, “72 laborers brought us this food.” The chant has since been changed to “innumerable laborers.”] 

I’m intrigued by the number 72. Why is it not more? Not fewer? Is it really 72? I love that 72, and I’m sorry that it was changed to “innumerable” because “innumerable laborers” is too many to think about. But 72 you can think about and ask questions about.

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