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An Onion in My Pocket: My Life with Vegetables

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Thanks to her beloved cookbooks and groundbreaking work as the chef at Greens restaurant in San Francisco, Deborah Madison, though not a vegetarian herself, has long been revered as this country's leading authority on vegetables. She profoundly changed the way generations of Americans think about cooking with vegetables, helping to transform "vegetarian" from a dirty word into a mainstream way of eating. But before she became a household name, Madison spent almost twenty years as an ordained Buddhist priest, coming of age in the midst of counterculture San Francisco. In this charmingly intimate and refreshingly frank memoir, she tells her story--and with it the story of the vegetarian movement--for the very first time. From her childhood in Big Ag Northern California to working in the kitchen of the then-new Chez Panisse, and from the birth of food TV to the age of green markets everywhere, An Onion in My Purse is as much the story of the evolution of American foodways as it is the memoir of the woman at the forefront. It is a deeply personal look at the rise of vegetable-forward cooking, and a manifesto for how to eat well.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published May 5, 2020

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About the author

Deborah Madison

39 books160 followers
Deborah Madison is an American chef, writer and cooking teacher. She has been called an expert on vegetarian cooking and her gourmet repertoire showcases fresh garden produce. Her work also highlights Slow Food, local foods and farmers' markets.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 89 reviews
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,049 followers
January 4, 2021
One of the first cookbooks I was given when I got married in 2000 was Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. My family was worried that I was marrying a vegetarian and wanted me to be prepared.

Deborah Madison has long been connected to vegetarian cooking although she isn't a vegetarian exactly, she has just found herself in spaces that have a lot of produce to offer and where people don't eat a lot of meat. Her spiritual practice at the SF Zen Center included a long stint running the kitchen which would eventually lead her to open Greens in cooperation with the center, and somehow in between there she also worked at Chez Panisse, a job she just kind of fell into.

All along the way, she's been writing cookbooks that captured several decades of vegetarian cooking in America, from the hippie dippie years of brown breads and lots of cheese to where we are now with our coconut everything and broader access to ingredients.

The memoir chronicles her journey with food, ingredients, cooking, restaurants, cookbooks - and also a deeper exploration of what is enough, what nourishes, and the importance of community.

This book came out November 10 from Knopf; I had a copy from the publisher through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Karen.
Author 1 book7 followers
March 6, 2021
Deborah Madison's memoir is a little like sitting down for a cup of tea with a person you don't know well and finding that their story spills out over the course of a few hours. I had not heard of Madison, I'm embarrassed to say, but found her book via Margaret Roach's "A Way to Garden" podcast. She gave a list of books that were helping her get through the pandemic and this one sounded good, with an intriguing title to boot.

Madison, of course, is considered a pioneer in the vegetarian movement in the U.S., having been the first chef at "Greens," a San Francisco institution. By Madison's account, it's a job she stumbled into and felt totally unprepared for.

The opening of the book focuses on Madison's early upbringing and how that shaped her relationship with food. She talks about her mother's own aversion to cooking, and her absolute lack of skill with it. And her father's pleasure in taking over the kitchen for a few weeks every year while his wife was visiting family back east. Madison remembers fondly the meat-filled meals they would have for those few weeks, notable because otherwise the family was eating more for fuel, and barely for that, it would seem.

In lots of ways, this sort of apathy towards food prepared Madison well for life inside a Zen community, where food was appreciated because there was genuine hunger and need. I would have loved to hear more about how this influenced Madison generally, but the way it was written, it seems it was a little bit of a shelter from the storm, but not entirely life changing. I don't know. She refers to the 20 years she spent training in Zen practices as the lost years and maybe she doesn't like to delve too too deeply into them.

The book picks up in entirely new ways when Madison takes the reins at the Zen centre, which leads her to meet Alice Waters, and become an apprentice in her kitchen, which then leads to the offer to helm the kitchen at Greens. She spends a delightful period of the book describing those days, figuring out how to put a menu together, how to spin magic out of the kitchen, how to grow and find the best ingredients. She has to fight today's perceptions of vegetarianism and vegetarian food - now, in most cities, one can consume an entire meal where the absence of meat is not at all noticeable. It won't be just a salad, or something smothered in cheese. But the early days sound a bit dire, especially since globalization had not brought all kinds of new and exotic flavours, methods and foods to our tables. We're still a meat-heavy society, and I know I often feel I'm not getting "value" if there's not a slab of meat on my plate. But this book made me think about just how much can be done, to get flavours and nuance into a vegetarian meal, and how much trickier it is for chefs to adapt and meet the challenge of still satisfying a north American palate.

I enjoyed this. The writing may not have been lyrical, but it was certainly lively and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Madison better.
Profile Image for Leslie.
666 reviews5 followers
April 21, 2021
What an interesting book, offering an insider's insights into the birth of the current vegetarian era (though Madison does not label herself a vegetarian) and successful commercial cooking within those confines. Wonderful writing about growing up in Davis, life and work at the San Francisco Zen Center and its offshoots, and Madison's maturing cooking and cookbook writing. You don't need to have eaten at Greens in its early days (though I was fortunate to have done so) or at any of the other restaurants mentioned to appreciate Madison's tale.
948 reviews5 followers
August 26, 2021
I really enjoyed learning about Madison's life. A little obnoxious on the "I'm not a vegetarian " shtick as though not eating meat is a bad thing.
Profile Image for Samantha.
127 reviews7 followers
December 31, 2020
Deborah Madison has Opinions. I feel that if instead of taking the time to read this, I could have been with her in person, in someone’s kitchen, over a dining table, etc, that I would adore her - she seems funny and salty and sassy and loving and neurotic and FULL of well-earned opinions.

But just reading her book, I feel that there’s a certain crotchety lack of gratitude for the beautiful kismet and serendipity of her life, like she wrote the book because she had to, not because she wanted to, and she doesn’t come across to be as lovely and generous of spirit as she likely is. She seems bitter and angry that she was a the forefront of a food movement and hasn’t received enough credit, but comes across like she’s trying to be folksy and honest, but is just bitter. She has had many magical experiences, but the way she recounts them doesn’t indicate that she knew it, and even when she shares humorous moments that helped her learn and grow as a chef, writer or person, she seems uncomfortable with the knowledge that it was necessary for her. And, the postscript is just weird; 2020 has been unusual and unexpected for just about every person on the planet, but Madison’s words make it seem like she is the anomaly. There’s definitely humility in the book, but it’s so awkwardly phrased that it comes across as negligible.

Also, understanding that food trends can get beyond themselves, as the auntie to gorgeous young people with quite serious celiac, and friend to people who avoid gluten for legitimate health reasons, I found Madison’s repeated angry dismissal of all things gluten-free to be really off-putting and lacking in compassion.

That said, I also found it to be compelling, but I’m from California and the Bay Area restaurant scene of the 90’s (and a huge fan of Greens), I’m married to a Zen Buddhist, am mostly vegetarian and I’m a manic consumer of arugula, so there was a lot that was familiar and fascinating to take in from a new perspective. It was an interesting read, but many times I felt that her opinions and her editors let her down.
Profile Image for Matthew Harby Conforti.
172 reviews3 followers
April 25, 2022
3.75/ I love Deborah Madison, I started working with her cookbooks while teaching myself to cook in college. I would say the memoir is really only for “fans” or people specifically interested in Zen Buddhism or food culture of the West Coast in the 70s and 80s.

Some of the most engaging aspects of the book were Madison tracing food trends through the decades and her recounting the limitations of running a vegetarian Zendo and later a famous San Francisco restaurant due to the availability of ingredients in those decades. I also found the descriptions of making the various cookbooks interesting.
Profile Image for Elstirling.
293 reviews6 followers
April 22, 2022
Interesting saga of author’s journey to cooking vegetarian but a bit repetitive. Perhaps my review is biased because I grew up as a produce salesman’s daughter and loved cooking vegetables, gave up eating beef 50 years ago and have many cherished vegetable meals we share. I have no problem feeding my family vegetarian dinners for a whole week +.
Profile Image for Sue.
201 reviews6 followers
January 27, 2021

I listened to this book, read by the author, and when the loan expired, I was only 50% into the book, and decided against renewing. I love her cookbooks and use them regularly but this memoir was just not compelling. The book is not linear and the chapters bounce around different periods of her life. I was intrigued by her descriptions of her parents and their very different approaches to food and how it influenced her. Given that early chapter, I think I would have preferred a book that described the many influences and how they gradually affected her - a linear or traditional memoir style. I considered her opinions on local food economies weak and uninspiring. If you are trying to influence people on a value you hold, you need to make a strong case.
Profile Image for Greta.
166 reviews1 follower
February 11, 2021
Enjoyed the revisiting of my own early years in the Bay Area. Some interesting insights into food culture. Made me want to cook more. On the downside, this is very poorly written. Disjointed, narratives poorly developed, pedestrian prose at best. Needed an editor, badly.
Profile Image for Erin.
943 reviews23 followers
November 11, 2020
Such a lovely and interesting memoir. I learned much about life as a zen practitioner, which I had not known before! It's so interesting that she and Ruth Reichel came up in similar ways--odd parents, hippie communal living--and both ended up with careers in food. This memoir was so much better than Ruth's recent ones.
Profile Image for Sara.
553 reviews14 followers
November 15, 2020
I credit DMad for teaching me how to cook with her weighty and encyclopedic tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and so it was with great anticipation that I read this memoir about her experiences at Tassajara, Greens, and in the food world in general. It didn't disappoint: this was a lovely book detailing her childhood in the Central Valley, her ins and outs with the Zen community in the Bay Area (though she tactfully doesn't explain why she left), and her dedication to all things grown locally and ethically. It was fascinating to read how America evolved from iceberg lettuce to arugula during her lifetime. My only quibble was that the book jumped around between describing things chronologically and thematically, so figuring out where she was in time was a little disorienting at first.
Profile Image for Crim Jim.
27 reviews1 follower
February 26, 2021
Please, please, PLEASE someone get this book off of shelves everywhere. My husband read it when it first came out and has been stuffing various root vegetables in his pockets ever since...

The house smells like a compost bin at this point and I've been asked several times if we live with a pet rabbit. This needs to end, someone please help me. I've tried divorcing Dave but they wouldn't let him into any lawyer's office with his potent stench.

All I want is for no one to be put in my shoes because of this book... it has severely impacted my life in ways I do not wish upon even my biggest enemies. If you don't want to constantly be looking out for remedies to remove the onion smell from your belongings, do NOT read this book or let anyone close to you get hold of it.
Profile Image for Lisa Kelsey.
165 reviews26 followers
January 2, 2022
I have read many books about food, many a cook, chef or food critic's memoir, many actual cookbooks. But An Onion in My Pocket is by far the one that touched closest to my own heart. Having grown up in California roughly in the same time period may have something to do with it. Having parents who were both frugal and health conscious may be another. More than anything else though, is how deeply Madison's complete vision of food and eating resonates. As I finish this book on the first day of 2021 I resolve to live the lessons from this book: Be grateful. Be gracious. Be generous. Now I'm off to bake some bread for my family.
Profile Image for Jennybeast.
3,450 reviews12 followers
April 27, 2020
Really enjoyable memoir. I had no idea who Deborah Madison is, but I love hearing about the different ways that chefs become chefs and that foodies are drawn into their lifestyle. This book was particularly interesting because of Madison's pivotal and yet cranky relationship with vegetarianism. I love her message -- that vegetables are for everyone -- and that often the most memorable food isn't about the food, it's about the kindness of the person who prepared it. It's an episodic work, and somewhat non-linear, but I enjoyed that as well.

Advanced reader's copy provided by edelweiss.
Profile Image for Renee Chasse.
57 reviews1 follower
November 15, 2020
I feel bad giving it this review but this writing style is just not for me. The stories are disjointed and not clearly told, there’s not a lot of description, and I feel like I’m reading a transcript of a lecture, not an actual book. Her lessons are interesting and very inspiring, but I am not a fan of the rest. Sorry, Deborah :(
Profile Image for Jenn.
406 reviews15 followers
November 23, 2020
I found this just terminally boring -- not sure if it was the fault of the narration or not, but in spite of being interested in so many of the topics covered (and having several of Madison's cookbooks on my shelf), I had a hard time caring about the presentation here.
Profile Image for Debbi.
338 reviews87 followers
October 31, 2022
I decided to give this another try and I came to the same conclusion. There is very little passion in this memoir she has had an interesting life, but it doesn't shine here. Fortunately, that isn't the case with her cookbooks which are consistently excellent.
313 reviews1 follower
July 16, 2021
I got Madison's recipe book VEGETABLE LITERACY earlier this year and somehow since I like food literature and was intrigued with Madison because of the vegetarian issue, I read this book. The beginning of the book focuses on her 20 years as a Buddhist and made me long for a book by Ruth Reichl or MFK Fisher where the food was the central piece. However eventually we get to Greens restaurant and Chez Panisse and her recipe books and writing career. This is not a recipe book but Madison's life with food. I came to like it much better than Alice Waters book COMING TO MY SENSES.

Madison spent much of her early life in the Bay Area or northern California and I could identify with that. She has spent the last 30 years in New Mexico and I have a fondness for northern New Mexico. She is another alumni of Chez Panisse.

Due to health issues I decided to give up eating meat in the autumn of 2019. As time passed, I was surprised by how little I missed it. Like Madison I was bugged by the constant question from people if I was getting enough protein. I also came to be bothered as she is by a label. My doctor wants to label me pescatarian because I do eat fish. But I also eat dairy and eggs so I start to wonder if I am what Madison called her mother "a fin and feathers vegetarian". I don't eat chicken just the eggs! Why must we be placed into categories? After a year I began to find myself thinking about "dead animals" and I didn't want to become one of THOSE people but it does come to mind at times. It also amazes me the amount and importance that meat has in the American diet. But truthfully in my own mind I just think of it as I don't drink alcohol, I don't smoke cigarettes and I don't eat meat. These are just things I don't do and they don't have any particular value or significance to anybody even me. It is just the way I live my life. I don't care how you live yours. Madison was very interesting in her comments about the same subject. She prefers to be a "flexitarian" meaning she does eat meat on occasion but prefers vegetables. She also doesn't want to be rude to hostesses and so says she will eat anything. I know my frustration in the past as a cook/hostess when told that people didn't eat certain things after I had labored to make them. Here I think of a beautiful chocolate Bundt birthday cake for a friend who tells me she prefers lemon to chocolate! Such a waste! It is impossible to please everyone as David Kinch goes off about on THE MIND OF A CHEF and there are more and more people with food requirements where they won't eat dairy, eggs, honey, grain, gluten, carbohydrates, etc. It is no wonder that people stopped having dinner parties and we all go to restaurants where we can order what we want.

Madison is older than me and when she talks about all the things we ate or did not eat in the "old days" because they weren't available or we had never heard of them, I can relate. But at least for our childhood we didn't eat the junk food that later generations were raised on.

I used to have Madison's GREENS cookbook and also THE SAVORY WAY but since I wasn't interested in vegetarian in those years I finally weeded them out. Now I wish I had them. However even Madison is surprised when people say they actually use the GREENS cookbook since it really was written with restaurant dishes in mind and a lot of hours and a staff are required for them. I think they lacked photographs too and I really used to like food pictures (food porn!). I think that I actually went to Greens Restaurant with my mother-in-law in the early 1980's but at that time I wasn't that into vegetables. It is interesting to me how our eating habits have changed over the years and Madison in this book records her own history of food.

I will keep this book on my shelves with Reichl, Fisher, John Thorne, Calvin Trillin, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters---my food lit books!
Profile Image for Anastasia Tuckness.
1,379 reviews13 followers
April 27, 2021
Deborah Madison has had a long food career. She is perhaps best known for her 14 cookbooks, although I know her mostly from the pages of Cooking Light magazine. In this memoir, she tells the story of her life, beginning with her childhood and progressing through her various restaurants, cookbooks, and more, right up to the present.

The book is thoughtful and reflective, about food, about herself, and about people. I appreciated a lot of her insights along the way and enjoyed following her story. I think we share some personality traits, actually!

Passages and themes that spoke to me:

She originally intended to be a city planner, but realized that even people who have a great living situation are rarely satisfied. She says, "Did it make sense to work to satisfy people's wants if they'd never really be, for once and for all, satisfied?"

She calls herself a "recovering Buddhist" and in fact was a serious Zen Buddhist student in California for 20 years. She details many of her practices and insights from that time. One of these insights was that she needs "hands, soil, smells, and food for fodder, for direction," both worldly and spiritual. I, too, find myself more whole and more grounded when I am actually working with material things--cooking, gardening, even arranging things!

For some of those years, she was the cook for the Buddhist community, a job which was very challenging. "It's hard work and there's a lot that requires constant care if it's not to be wasted.... but what was especially difficult for me was learning that I couldn't please everyone ... I was always failing at least a few people at a time." Oh, do I feel that challenge when cooking for my extended family.

Reading about Chez Panisse and Greens was delightful, to be able to picture those groundbreaking restaurants and their meals!

This sentence was super inspiring: "Warm, well-cooked legumes seasoned with butter or olive oil and a smidgen (or handful) of fresh herbs are simply delicious; their modest flavors make the olive oil and butter sparkle ... garnish with crisped bread crumbs."

She closes the book with a series of short descriptions of significant meals from her life, setting the scene, describing the people involved, and sharing why they were significant. This was perhaps my favorite section.

She has been labeled a vegetarian cook, and indeed she loves vegetables, but she doesn't mind eating meat from time to time. In fact, she served on a grass-fed cattleman board once because she knows that sustainably raised cattle are the way to go if you're going to eat meat. She says she has a hard time communicating her preferences to people, and I wholeheartedly agree. How do you say, "I really eat a mostly plant-based diet, but I like good food in general, and it's great to be able to include some meat and meat products in your meals, and let's talk about how to reduce the impact of meat raising by using less of it and also using sustainable practices to raise and harvest them." Right.

She talks periodically about how she differs from her husband Patrick when it comes to food. An example was ordering food from restaurants--she feels compelled to pick something interesting, and he just picks what he wants--like once in Italy, where he got a bowl of ravioli, and she ended up with a watery bowl of fava beans. I can totally, totally see that happening to me. I need to find something interesting! Something in season! Something that I can't make myself! Instead of just, something that would taste good. :)

She now lives in New Mexico, so I loved all of those references and descriptions!

I'd recommend it for anyone who likes thoughtful or food-related memoirs.
Profile Image for Kristin.
1,099 reviews30 followers
January 1, 2022
Read as an audio book. Narrator is Deborah Madison.

This was an interesting read from a historical perspective in that being - or becoming - "vegetarian" was indeed a huge learning experience that had a rather rocky beginning. Something that's been forgotten in a more global accessible world food-wise. I was introduced to vegetarian/meatless cooking via the sister-in-law in the mid-90's. Looking back, I can absolutely see the foundations of those '70's influences (brown and cheese) in the options available in the Midwest at the time.

In the first part of the book Deborah establishes her food background through her childhood upbringing, which covers about 20 years. Second part of the book is her experiences with the Buddhist Zen Center in San Francisco, which covers the second 20 plus years. Then there's the transition to cooking full time at Chez Panisse and opening Greens. The book concludes with Deborah reminiscing about writing cookbooks and her most memorable meals. The autobiography/memoir is set out in a mostly linear style, but the plot does have a tendency to wander to and fro in time which I found a tich tedious (my personality).

I did get the impression there were items glossed over (for example, the abrupt departure from the Center after 25+ years), her time at Chez Panisse felt understated, and perhaps a handful to0 many memorable meals.

But looking back and reading (watching) the beginnings and growth of plant-based eating spread outward from the West coast was fascinating. To have seen the food options slowly increase in the stores and now, something many of us take for granted. From a handful of people like Alice Waters, Deborah Madison, Marion Cunningham and others! set the foundations for the plethora of (global!) cook book options that are available today is remarkable. Everything has a beginning, and for the States, this was one of them.

Recommended if you like foodie autobiographies.

Profile Image for Jan Peregrine.
Author 12 books9 followers
April 7, 2021

I recently wrote that I rarely read memoirs, but lately it's not true. After reading a couple celebrity memoirs and trying a couple others, I then read a food memoir called An Onion in my Pocket: My Adventures with Vegetables by vegetarian chef Deborah Madison. She was at the forefront of Southern California's gradual embrace of vegetarian food in the 70's as she managed the Zen Center kitchen before it was cool.

I do like her style of making up recipes on the fly and cooking with lots of colorful, delicious vegetables, but she uses way too much butter, cream, and oil. Moved on from her Buddhist life, she's enjoyed a bit of fish or meat occasionally, although she mostly focuses on vegetarian dishes at her restaurant Greens and in her many cookbooks. I haven't read any of them or eaten her food, but I prefer cooking vegan.

Which brings me to my last point. Madison has a lot of experience cooking with vegetables, beans, fruits, and pastries, but she doesn't call herself a vegetarian. She imagines it's a political statement to say you're a vegetarian. Obviously she still feels she's in the 70's. So she feels it's not right to tell your hostess you can't eat the meat served. Nonsense!

Anyway, it was kind of a curious book following two memoirs I read where Buddhist chanting was talked about. Madison helped me to understand how she suffered to chant and how rewarding it and her community were.

You would best be a nostalgic hippie who grew up in Southern California to really relish this book. I learned that dishes turn out better if you salt as you go. Not a bad book, but too outdated for me.
Profile Image for Marilyn .
292 reviews22 followers
May 28, 2021
I started this review of AN ONION IN MY POCKET by Doborah Madision many weeks ago, already several books behind in creating reviews of at least eight other books-read. I've finally decided that I have to resort to simply rating my reads with just a few comments after this one. Otherwise I will never catch up with my listing of them. At this point there are 12 such items stacked beside me, awaiting their turns to be entered on my Goodreads list! And so many more stories to be read yet (which is what I REALLY want to make time for!). I would rather be reading that reviewing, even though I love to write! So below is what I started to write weeks ago and have now completed.

I always peruse, when I'm in a bookstore, the section where I might find food-related memoirs. While our local Barnes and Noble seems to cover fewer of these than they did years ago, I still often find a few gems. Since I happen to own Deborah Madison's cookbook, VEGETABLE LITERACY, naturally I was drawn to her memoir - although its title, AN ONION IN MY POCKET: MY LIFE IN VEGETABLES caught my attention first. Like, who puts an onion in their pocket? I thought it a clever eye-catcher. And then I noticed the author's name. And I opened the book to scan a bit of its first pages.

Hmmm... if I ever knew it before, I had forgotten that Madison truly learned to cook during her almost-twenty years as an ordained Buddhist priest! Who would've expected an excellent Chef-Buddhist emerging? Well, not back-in-the-day (my generations' hay days!) when it was called "hippie food" and it was all about tofu and quite plain vegetables (at least it seemed that way). But, assigned to the kitchen in her Buddhist digs, Deborah began to realize that the food could be better-tasting while still healthy - and it could be meat-free and be delicious! She even had the opportunity to learn more about cuisine via working in the kitchen at the then-new Chez Panisse -and that was only the beginning. I would love to find a used copy of her first cookbook - a cc that I could afford to buy, that is. On Amazon, THE GREENS COOKBOOK, which chronicles the recipes for dishes she created and served at the restaurant she helped to establish in California, owned by her Buddhist community. If one can find one online for sale, is outrageously out of my price range!

If you love reading food-related memoirs, this is a unique one. Well worth reading. I love Madison's pondering along the way too-- in the chapter titled "My Buddhist Family: Living and Eating Together" she writes (after grabbing an extra cooking to take back to her cabin following a meal, expecting to enjoy it just as much as earlier): "Is the magic in being given something, not taking it? I'm sure that there are times when it isn't true, but I concluded that if you were not starving but merely aching and tired then the goodness and magic might have to come from a gift. Later I thought it was the context-- the fatigue I felt in the zendo, the discouragement, the quick serving of the tea and treat, the spaciousness surrounding the event, perhaps these were the conditions that allowed me to experience the miracle of that cooking. All that was missing in my little cabin."

Her family life, her path toward and away from her Buddhist Priest life, her experiences as she sought to learn more about food and its benefits and preparations as well as to get get more daring with ingredients, how and why she began to create and seek publication of her books... This is a truly amazing, kind, creative, hard-working, brilliant woman - and her story is worth learning about. Although there are a few slower parts in the memoir, I never even thought about putting it aside. And the 5-stars rating I am giving it confirms how much I enjoyed AN ONION IN MY POCKET: MY LIFE IN VEGETABLES by Deborah Madison!
473 reviews4 followers
November 6, 2021
I was not able to finish this. Like other reviews have said, the writing is disjointed. The book lacks a throughline that would help tie the miscellaneous anecdotes together, which is odd because you'd think that love of food would be enough. But it's not.

I made it to about page 38 and then I gave up. I never got a clear sense of the author and in those few pages, the timeline had jumped around enough that I was thoroughly confused - did she like her parents? Were her parents married to the end or did they divorce at some point that hasn't been mentioned? Why does she have multiple siblings but only references one? And the biggest question of all - her journey into Buddhism - was covered so quickly as if this were perfectly ordinary and something that all young people do. Maybe the book later covers this in more detail, but each little section of the book reads like a standalone story, as if each anecdote is a little baked potato that you open up to get a glimpse of the steaming delicious inside, and then someone takes it away and plunks down a different potato before you even get more than a taste of the first one.

This book needed a lot of structural editing. I'm a little surprised at how bad it is.
Profile Image for Phoebe.
1,981 reviews12 followers
December 19, 2020
Probably THE authority on vegetarian cooking, and whose cookbooks are a core feature in well-stocked kitchens, Deborah Madison presents her fans with a treat: a trip into her past, where we meet her unusual parents, and accompany on her journey to the person she is today (how fascinating to discover she was a Buddhist priest who cooked at the San Francisco Zen Center before venturing farther afield). While I was a child during her years as a restauranteur and writer of cookbooks, I encountered her through my mother's recipes, and titles like the Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown, (also a Zen student) are stuck indelibly in my memory. Madison was trendy before it was trendy to cook with fresh organic ingredients and have vegetable dishes be a main course instead of a slab of meat. This book is an origin story of a food movement that changed America forever. Madison is brusquely opinionated and the last section of the book is somewhat scattered and disjointed, as if she needed a place to present a potpourri of observations about food today. This is a must-read for anyone who loves food and its preparation. Adult.
Profile Image for Happyreader.
544 reviews85 followers
November 3, 2021
This memoir that lacks candor. I’m unclear what motivated Deborah Madison to write this since it reads like there are some family and faith issues with her younger years that she’d prefer to forget yet includes likely to link to her love of food. She vaguely covers her twenty years commitment to San Francisco Zen Center but you have no idea why she entered that lifestyle and even less what made her leave – although you sense some resentment/maybe even scandal there (something about an abbot?). Perhaps it’s as simple as the Zen Center both providing her the opportunity to become a chef but pigeonholing her as a vegetarian chef. She clearly loves veggies but seems to be indignant about being so closely tied to vegetarian cooking. She’s defensively adamant that she’s more than willing to kill and consume some animals as long as they lived an artisanal/organic lifestyle prior to slaughter. Fortunately, just like her reduced cream/butter/cheese revision of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, she lightens up towards the end with a lovely chapter on memorable meals. Especially beautiful is the description of her husband nourishing his dying mother.
Profile Image for Nancy.
389 reviews7 followers
February 1, 2021
I listened to Deborah Madison read her memoir. I enjoyed this book even though it was completely different from my expectations. I thought I would be hearing much more about food, and how she developed recipes. Instead she told the whole story. How she grew up in a home where food was not plentiful, or creative or even cooked well. And a home she could not wait to leave. After leaving home, she studied Zen and took in the kitchen as her part in sharing responsibilities. She talks about simple cooking, good ingredients, and how Greens grew out if that Zen monastery and how her first cookbook was a result of people asking for recipes. She met Alice Waters and worked at Chez Panisse before opening Greens, learning about restaurant food, quantities and connected with farmers. It all folds back to her experience at the monastery. It is an incredible story but there is quite a bit of Zen in it.
Profile Image for Edith.
421 reviews
February 7, 2021
3 1/2 stars. Exactly what the title indicates--a great chef and cookbook writer's relationship with vegetables. Slow going at the start--the time frames are difficult to follow. But it picks up as soon as Ms Madison starts creating/working at Greens. From that point on, the book seems to pick up speed and intention--though it is clear, as she progresses, how important that first, rather jumbled section is. The last third or so of the book, in which Ms. Madison thinks about her relationship to vegetarianism and meat-eating is fascinating, as is her account of writing and publicizing her books. Her discussion of the changes in eating habits and available foods in the last three or four decades is very interesting, and does make one wonder what will be next--continuing expansion or contraction of food choices.

Well worth reading, especially if you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at a fine restaurant.
February 25, 2021
Deborah Madison has led an incredibly interesting life and I really enjoyed many parts of this book. The first half is markedly better than the second, for sure. Her descriptions of the food she both cooked and ate at different times in her life were truly delightful - she had me craving mushrooms on buttered toast and garlic soup at odd hours of the day. And I learned how to properly salt a fish while I cook it.

But I agree with many of the other reviews on here in that it is not well written and it is difficult to follow. I finished many chapters, particularly the later ones, feeling like I had inadvertently skipped some pages. The chapters wherein she basically lists her cookbooks and then describes some memorable meals from different phases of her life were particularly baffling - I would have been interested in a much more thorough exploration of these subjects, maybe even in another book.

Two stars is probably more appropriate but I like her so much I gave it 3.
Profile Image for Phyllis.
807 reviews41 followers
March 14, 2021
I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, through the discovery and evolution of vegetarian/vegan eating as a culinary event. I have followed the gourmet food scene of Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, La Folie's Roland Passot, authentic Mediterranean cookbook author/teacher Paula Wolfert, and of course Green's Deborah Madison, as well as many other notable chefs and food-related celebrities. So I was looking forward to reading this book.

I enjoyed learning about Deborah's experiences with food - beginning as a child, then in her twenties running the kitchen at the San Francisco Zen Center, writing over ten cookbooks, and opening and running Green's, one of the country's first and still highly rated upscale vegetarian restaurants. Throughout this memoir she is humble and honest, sharing anecdotes as she describes her life with food at the forefront.
Profile Image for Preethi.
804 reviews122 followers
June 12, 2021
This is a collection of essays, most of which I enjoyed reading. But I didn’t care for the book or the author’s experiences in life, maybe coz I didn’t know about this author before I picked up the book.

I picked up this book at first to read a memoir of an ex-monk’s experiences with food from a Buddhist monk’s perspective. I hadn’t signed up to read about her life & good experiences post being a monk , which is what I felt this book focused more on.
TBH, I didn’t care enough about her experiences in running Greens or Chez Panisse. I would’ve loved if she wrote more about her experiences in and around the kitchen in the Zen center, I enjoyed those essays better.

For a while, while reading the essays set in her childhood & early adulthood, I felt like I might want my memoir to sound like this too, coz I enjoyed reading those. The rest were passable, to me.
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