Deborah Madison: Cycling through ages and stages

Published in Yoga + Joyful Living in May/June 2008.
During the decade that monks at Crestone Zen Mountain Center, in Crestone, Colorado, prepared recipes from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, 1997; reissued 2007), they subjected their copy to drips, splashes, and food-smeared fingers. They made notations in the margins, mistakenly ripped pages, and tore the cover. The book was finally so encrusted with reminders of delicious meals shared over the years, Madison made the monastic community’s members an offer they were happy to accept: If they’d autograph the tattered volume, she’d trade it for a new copy.

          The first copy was itself a gift from Madison, who occasionally travels from her home in Santa Fe to cook and sit at Crestone. “I know many people there,” she says, “including Baker-roshi, who was my teacher at San Francisco Zen Center, where I began studying in the nineteen-sixties.” Now entering her sixth decade, Madison is searching for a way to bring a practice of Buddhism back into a life that once revolved around it. “I learn cyclically,” she comments. Just what this turn of the spiral means is not yet clear though. “When you’re twenty, you can say to yourself, ‘Now I’ll do this for awhile,” Madison explains. But when you’re older and your life is full of relationships and activities — including congenial ones, such as a spouse and creative projects — any change is complicated.

          Back when Madison was in her twenties and thirties, she delighted in the rigorous existence at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a monastic branch of the San Francisco center. She served as inaugural chef of the community’s restaurant, Greens, and eventually did a stint as head monk, something she says is expected of those who’ve been ordained. “Tassajara was intense,” Madison recalls. “Each year, we had two one-hundred-day practice periods, during which there was a lot of sitting. You didn’t leave; you were focused. When you became head monk, in addition to working on your own practice in a new way, you were available for people to speak to and were aware of what was happening throughout the community on a practice level.”

          By the mid-Eighties, however, Madison wanted to be in the world. “I had curiosity and some anxiety about making a life outside the monastic community,” she says. “Other people my age had gone to college and started careers, and I felt I had catching up to do.” Her food expertise helped her move outward. In addition to cooking at the American Academy in Rome and Alice Waters’ renowned San Francisco restaurant Chez Panisse, Madison gathered recipes from Greens into a cookbook of the same name. The book put her, Greens restaurant, and vegetarian cooking on the map. Eventually, she married and moved to Santa Fe, which has been a fruitful base for more cooking, writing, and traveling.

          Nine cookbooks, numerous contributions to other writers’ books, and countless magazine articles later, Madison hasn’t simply been in the world, she’s toiled on its behalf. She helped manage and develop Santa Fe’s now-famous farmers’ market and, eight years ago, started the city’s Slow Food Convivium, one of many such groups worldwide that celebrate biodiversity by preparing and consuming local foods. She has twice attended Terra Madre, a Slow Food event in Italy that brings together traditional and indigenous people from around the world in order to help them preserve their heritage foods. And Broadway Books has just issued the paperback edition of Local Flavors, her 2002 book on greenmarkets in the United States and Canada.

          After this whirlwind of activity, Madison feels an inward turning: “There are ages and stages, and things don’t fit like they used to. I may have had a pattern, but do I still want it?” She’s comfortable with uncertainty, though—able to observe herself changing and learn from the transformations. “It’s like watching a stitch being sewn back on itself,” she says. “I’m picking up threads that have changed and returned in a different way. And that feels good, even though the process is not easy.”

          Madison’s current book project, What We Eat When We Eat Alone (forthcoming 2009), may provide her with clues to this new, introspective stage. Though some of the initial interviews by Madison and her husband and co-writer, the painter Patrick McFarlin, have been humorous (a woman whose solo meals were nothing but oatmeal and men who scarfed down cheeseburgers), other conversations have plumbed serious issues, such as how we care for ourselves.

          To concentrate on her writing, Madison often leaves her home office, with its Internet connection and email interruptions, and takes a laptop into her adobe house’s 105-square-foot kitchen. It’s a bright, simple space with soft-brown walls, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the garden, green-stained wood counters, and yellow-stained drawer fronts. Few pots or cooking tools are visible. “I like clear counters,” says Madison. “I’m a knife-and-cutting-board kind of cook, so I don’t have a lot of kitchen equipment around. I’d rather spend my money on folk-art pottery, which I display on open shelves.”

          Her kitchen may be stripped down, but her garden is becoming ever larger and more complex. She had an herb garden and a small apple orchard, but last year she dug up the lawn and put in a dozen vegetable beds, some of which are about 14 feet long. “I’m exploring the possibility of growing more of what I eat,” she says.

          When asked what anchors her, Madison responds without hesitation, “Sitting. Zazen.” She pauses and adds, “And my garden. It’s literally grounding. When you grow your own food, it’s clear what’s for dinner.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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