Peter Meehan (and the editors of Lucky Peach) found a way to make a vegetable cookbook that you'll want to read as much as you want to
lick the pages cook from. Maybe he (they?) did that by writing it entirely between the hours of 2 A.M. and 4 A.M., subsisting on coffee—and of course brain-boosting, life-giving vegetables—alone. Maybe it doesn't matter!
Because when the headnotes and interviews and photos and recipe names make you laugh instead of yawn, make you want to slip on your sweatbands rather than your pajamas, you've got a book that's as full of power (powerful, you might say) as the food inside it.
We sat down to talk with Peter about the short-but-steep road to Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables!, the vegetable trends that annoy him most (spoiler alert: he's not easily irked), and why a vegetable cookbook isn't necessarily a vegetarian one. Below, you'll find an except of our conversation, edited for clarity and condensed for length, along with pictures from the book (captioned by sentences from the headnotes that accompany them).
We’re not just saying this, but we really love this book. [Editors' note: Always begin interviews with flattery, particularly if it's true!]
I’m glad you like this book because this book makes me very deeply nervous. 101 Easy Asian Recipes is a book I had wanted to write for a long time, like basically since I’d been doing "25 and Under" [for the New York Times]. The chef books I've done all have their recipes and personas tied up in them—it’s on me to do a good job writing them but it’s not necessarily on me for the idea.
This one was a pivot: We thought we were going to do 50 Ways to Fry a Chicken but then I saw that Clarkson Potter and Ten Speed had published a fried chicken book in every quarter in like the past ten years, and until this book was done, we had no test kitchen here [at the Lucky Peach offices], so we developed the first three books out of my house, and the idea of frying fifty chickens in my house—I would say that it would’ve ended my marriage, but it would’ve ended my life. Doing these books at my house was enough of a compost nightmare of vegetables.
Tell us about how the idea of Power Vegetables! came to be.
We thought let’s do an alphabetical vegetable book like Alice Waters’s Vegetables, which is a book I really love. But that’s a much longer book and it takes more time. I only had like five months to do the book. And then, seasonal: I’m like, Lucky Peach cannot do a seasonal vegetable book, like that’s… not on brand.
We got that—don't worry.
And then I wrote this email to my editor about "POWER VEGETABLES," with all these exclamation point and ridiculous phrases, and she was like, “That sounds great!” and I’m like, “None of us know what this means and we’re all agreeing to it!”
So it was kind of like we set out to make it without a clear destination in mind, and then it was in the development process of making dishes, and then asking them if they were powerful—that’s kind of how we made it. I mean, I think it’s a good selection of recipes and I think that 101 taught me and my wife, who’s the person I probably collaborate the most with on these cookbooks, that we wanted a set of recipes that we would actually make at home.
Well you say that there are a lot of fried chicken books coming out, but there are a lot of vegetable books, too.
Right, which I didn’t know, which was very good because that would have added to the pile of self-doubt that I live in day in and day out.
Well it’s also good because it seems like you just made vegetable book they way you wanted to make it, without outside influence.
And also because I think a vegetable book from Lucky Peach couldn’t be something that had a bunch of withered leaves and linen. I guess the other thing was trying to make kind of a funny vegetable cookbook. I don't know, it was like, why can’t cookbooks be stupid? And I remember showing this to my friend who’s the executive producer of "The Daily Show" and he was looking at it and when I saw him the next day, he’s like, “You’re right, the book is really stupid.” And it hurt a little bit inside, but then he was like “The thing is that on our show, stupid is really hard. And stupid is the thing that gets on the air. So you should feel good that you made something that stupid.” Once we’ve come up with the world that we’re living with for the book, then we’re going to create everything in that spirit.
What's the story behind the rules at the beginning of the book? [Editors' note: The rules consist of no pasta sauces, no egg-on-it dishes or grain bowls, fish and dairy are okay, fruits are vegetables.]
I really wanted to write 101 Easy Asian Recipes, but I did that on top of editing a magazine and I was very tired because we did it very fast. We did it in my house with my two babies there, and I had to write the introduction, and I think I wrote it over the scope of one cup of coffee at Lafayette and I was just like “How you gonna fill up these pages? You gotta get like four more pages to fill up the introduction,” and so I threw in some rules like “No frying,” which was again [as I mentioned before], because we made it in my house and it was disgusting—like the one day early on in the recipe testing process where we fried like eight things, and three days later you could still taste them on the walls. So that was where I came from. And then, when people write about cookbooks, they generally judge your cookbook by its cover or the first eight pages, which means that so much of the media coverage about 101 mentioned the rules that i thought, "Okay, cool. Well then people like rules in cookbooks."
So I knew I would have the rules in front of this. But as we were developing recipes, it was like, “Okay, this isn’t great on its own, but it’d be a great pasta sauce,” or it just became obvious that we could fill the book with pastas or grain bowls or vegetables helped along by bacon or eggs. And that’s how all those things got stripped away. Because it seemed like too much of a crutch. And because ultimately I want this to be a book where I can look at it and think, “What am I going to make tonight?” I don’t need someone to tell me that I can put things on pasta and it’ll taste good because I know that to be an intrinsic truth of life.
So how do you judge when a recipe is worthy of being included in a book, or worthy of being called a recipe, as opposed to an idea someone can figure out on their own?
In the case of 101, there’s a recipe for oranges, which is halfway facetious because it’s just about serving oranges at the end of any vaguely Asian meal as a way to covering the dessert. But at the same time, the entertaining industrial complex teaches us that we should make dessert because that’s how we show people we love them, whereas that’s not necessarily a part of lots of Asian meals, plus I hate baking. So for some people, telling them it's okay to end your meal with just some fresh fruit gives them permission to not put themselves through the steps of having to make a dessert to along with the meal. Though it’s a very dumb non-recipe to put in a cookbook, the purpose of it there seemed intentional and meaningful to me.
I also make clear that I reserve the right to do a Put This Shit on Pasta Cookbook and it’ll probably outsell all the other books. But the rules were really to make sure that the repertoire of recipes in the book was useful in the way I wanted it to be useful. But I worked for Mark Bittman for four years, so I know a fair amount about, like, keeping it simple. And while I’ve done a lot of weird cooking, for chef books and stuff, I think I’m very in touch with my lazy and incompetent inner animal and it's good that that’s not challenged too hard here. And also, between Mary-Frances [Heck, our recipe developer] and my wife and Mark Ibold, the food stylist I work with, we’re all pretty critical. There’s a couple recipes in here that have like kind of a controversial number of steps for my career. Where we were like, "Oh really, we’re going to get to nine?" But I think, at the same time, also, as a home cook, it’s not bad to be challenged—I don’t think cooking is a bad thing to do, but it’s trying to keep things in that sweet spot.
When you look at Marcella books, she has recipes for artichokes with salt and pepper. Do you think we could still do that?
I think that if contextually, as with the oranges recipe in 101, if it makes sense for what you’re doing, then yes. And I think that I have more textual mentions of things like that in this book than I have recipes for. Because I didn’t—again, going back to the fact that I operated on fear—I didn’t want to be called out for being, like, lazy as fuck.
What is it about vegetables that makes them so in need of defense? Why do we need to call vegetables powerful in the first place?
I think it’s two-fold. In terms of the positioning of this book and the plasma balls on the cover and the all caps and the exclamation point, it’s just because vegetables either get talked about as like, “Ooooh, this is a guilty, buttery can of soup and beans thing that you’ll love,“ or it’s some sort of like, “You’re going to be thinner and more beautiful and your yoga will be more pure because you’ve eaten this food.”
So I thought that taking the stupidity of the way that NASCAR food is packaged and applying it to vegetables would at least keep me awake through the process of making this book. That said, I think that there is a stigma that is real about vegetarian food. And I think that that comes from two places: One is from, let’s be real, old-school health food stores and old-line [restaurants] where there’s a lot of bad food—or, not bad food, but food that’s not being made to be delicious. It’s food that’s being made to serve either an idea of what’s healthy or to fit into food as a fuel for a different approach to life, but not food for the gluttonous reasons that people who probably read our publications pursue it. So I think that that’s real.
And then I think, probably as a result of that, there's the stigma against people who make it. To me, that was a challenge—because you know I’m from the Midwest, I’m from meat-eating people, and the idea that you would have a meal without meat just didn’t happen growing up. If I had been raised by like a macrobiotic family in Ohio like my circulation director, I might have a way different approach to it. But coming from the Midwest and being raised on meat, I feel like there is a sense that we must assert the fact that vegetables can satisfy you as much as meat can.
Why include anchovies and fish sauce?
Originally, the book was going to have meat in it. And then the more we started cooking with it and the more I started to talking to people about it, it seemed to me that that was going to alienate an audience and that it also was a crutch—like eggs and pasta—that vegetables didn’t need. But most of the vegetarians I know are ovolactovegetarians, and I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t know that most of our readers are vegetarian.
I could make some sort of high-minded argument about how pure vegetarianism barely exists outside of like first-world nations where people can choose to be that exclusive about what their diet is, and about how simmering a little garbage fish in with your miso is a good way to make a broth to make the few vegetables you can scrounge together taste good... but no, I think that it’s really more that the people I know who are vegetarians tend to eat those things [fish sauce, dashi, anchovies]. And I think that almost half the book is vegan, so it’s not like all fish and cheese and cream to crutch the vegetables. But I just feel like most of the world eats those things and it’s not necessarily a book for vegetarians.
Were there any trends that you nixed? That you thought about including? That annoy you in the world of vegetables?
No, I didn’t grain bowl- or rice bowl-it, but that was, again, because I couldn’t figure out how to rationalize it. I guess the thing is that by avoiding writing a particular seasonal book, I didn’t write a lot about farmers market, I didn’t write a lot about fermenting stuff. Miso and fish sauce are friendly fermented products that you might have in your kitchen, and if you don’t, you’re an idiot and you should. And using those to add those flavors is better than me being like, "You should ferment some shit at home." Because if you want to see the state our kombucha is in at this office, it is shameful.
Were there words that you banned in the writing of this book: fresh, crunchy, healthy, raw?
We have a banned words list at Lucky Peach that I think was started and maybe entirely populated by words that bother Brette Warshaw. But no, I am a lowest common denominator mercenary and I will do whatever it takes to write a book and get it done and get it in. It’s fun in the writing process when you come up with words you didn’t know were words.
Zazz, squoze. It’s more about the delight of writing under pressure and finding words that aren’t words but express what you’re feeling inside.
Why, in the context of so many cookbooks flooding the market, is Lucky Peach publishing more?
Cookbooks were how I learned everything about food. I used to live above St. Mark’s Books and buy literally all the books they had, and read all of the books they had. I still haven’t been to Paris—I learned the world through cookbooks. So they’re an important part of my life.
I think that for us it was, you could certainly make the argument that it was a revenue thing, but more than that, it was a way to diversify what we do. You know, I think we got into the habit of publishing impenetrable, long, weird recipes that were interesting for their ideas in the magazine. But I do come from a background of writing popular cookbooks and I wanted to do that again, also because that’s what I needed at home.
Are there any vegetable trends that bother you? Zoodles?
I didn't even know that was a thing until like, I saw the Spiralize Me book and I'm like, "That was a mistake." And then I looked at it on Amazon and I'm like, "It was a mistake you didn't write that book—that's what it was." And then, I was just in L.A. last week and my friend took me to Erewhon, where you can get alkalized water in the parking lot, and there was a huge case of pre-shredded vegetables. But I don’t know that I have a ton of ire for people who are like falling into that trap because that will be gone next year and there will be a new dumb thing there and there will still be 8% of people who have found spiralized vegetables and that will be part of their identity and at their eulogy, their granddaughter will be like, “And Grandma...” I don’t think it’s right to begrudge people their kinks.
It’s easy to get mad about trying to do a good job and thinking that the only thing you need to do is optimize everything so that you can get absorbed by Buzzfeed. But again, I spent a long time being really mad about everything and I’m trying to spend more time now being happy about the fact that I still get to do this, because it’s a silly job and it’s better than having to do something real.
Images reprinted from Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables. Copyright © 2016 by Lucky Peach LLC. Photographs by Gabriele Stabile. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.