Author Anna Thomas’s cooking style has always been distinguished by its simplicity.
Frequently ordinary but always fresh ingredients combine to create memorable, soul-satisfying dishes. As it happens, her style of cooking does more than simply taste wonderful, it brings a measure of security to her dinner table.
While many of us worry about the safety of the food we buy, Thomas doesn’t worry quite as much: “Maybe I’m in denial like everybody else,” she suggested. Maybe, but her approach to cooking and eating goes a long way toward mitigating her anxiety.
Thomas, who has just published her fourth cookbook, “Love Soup”, is the author of the classic “The Vegetarian Epicure”. First published in 1972, “The Vegetarian Epicure” took vegetarian cooking out of the realms of brown rice and tofu – and ideology – and moved it squarely into the realm of sensuality and pleasure. Over the years, she’s written more cookbooks, raised two sons (one is vegetarian and the other is vegan), and written and produced a number of films, including the Oscar-nominated “El Norte”. Food continues to be a tremendous source of satisfaction for her though, and she entertains frequently. While she’s concerned about food safety she feels she’s in a pretty good position to protect herself and those for whom she cooks from many of the problems.
“If you don’t eat meat, you’re way ahead of the game,” she said from her home in Ojai, California. “If you only eat some meat, and you make sure you know where it comes from, you’re also giving yourself a big advantage.”
Cooking one’s own food, using as minimally processed ingredients as possible, is another key step in keeping her kitchen safe. That’s a far cry from food factories where numerous ingredients, often heavily processed themselves and from multiple sources, are combined to make products that are then shipped thousands of miles away.
”If you’re eating food that’s been mixing with other foods, in places where speed and profit margin are more important than safety,” she said, “you just expose yourself to real risk.”
An even greater advantage is how little processed food ends up in her kitchen to begin with. Although she granted a green light to canned Ortega brand chilies at least as far back as 1996 when she published her third book, “The New Vegetarian Epicure”, her pantry is largely empty of ready-to-eat foods and other highly processed stuff, she said. For Thomas, it’s a matter of control.
Scouring her local farmers’ market and getting deliveries from a local CSA (local farms that deliver produce and other foods to subscribers who pay in advance for the season ahead), Thomas prepares her dishes from ingredients she’s selected herself. She knows what goes into that batch of soup. There’s virtually no question about the dessert or the salad dressing.
”I’m not saying nothing can happen,” she said, but it’s all about odds and, like crossing the street, you can improve your odds by looking both ways. Ultimately, however, it’s about common sense.
“Fortunately, in this case,” she said, “common sense and keeping your food fairly safe happens to coincide with really eating well.”
Like any well-prepared cook, she keeps a pantry full of staples that free her up to make last minute choices at the farmers’ market, but even those items – save for some select cans of vegetable stock, those Ortega chilies, and luxuries like balsamic vinegar – are mere ingredients and not the soul of the food she’s preparing. Bringing home her own produce, washing it herself – even when it has supposedly been washed already – are just part of the routine.
”I think just as a question of improving your odds, the more you bring it back home and make it a little more basic, the more you’re in a position to control how those things are done. And you’re not trying to rush the process.
“The more of the process you control,” she said, “then the more of the process you control.”