In August 1981, my then soon-to-be first husband and I loaded up a U-Haul trailer and moved from Athens, Georgia to Bloomington, Indiana. Our first apartment was a grim little efficiency all done up in 1970’s olive green and gold. The galley kitchen was in the living room, which had a giant grease stain in the middle of the carpet. It had only two positives: it was a short walk to the Indiana University campus, where I was working on a Master’s Degree in History, and it was just a couple of blocks away from the Tao Restaurant and Rudi’s Bakery.
The Tao, which was run by the members of a yoga ashram, got its start in the early 1970s as a worthy, hippie-vegetarian cafe — all brown rice, soy burgers, and sprouted things. By the time I arrived, it had grown up into a quite classy and refined (and not cheap) vegetarian restaurant. We were starving graduate students, but were also both budding foodies (although I hate the term, which technically hadn’t been invented yet). We scrimped and saved so we could splurge, once a month or so, on a nice meal at the Tao.
Rudi’s Bakery was more accessible, and there was no better comfort for a rotten day — I had a lot of those in Bloomington — than a slice of Rudi’s poppy seed cake with cream cheese frosting. I don’t have very many happy memories of those years, but the Tao and Rudi’s are among the happiest.
My first husband grew up in a restaurant family and was the one who really introduced me to the joy of cooking and eating well. We spent many happy hours in the kitchen together. Every weekend we undertook a new culinary adventure. I was not loving graduate school, and decided not to pursue a Ph.D. and left after my MA. I spent our final year in Bloomington, while my partner finished his degree, working at a soul-destroying job at the University Archives and taking cooking classes. The instructor for my first cooking class was Sally Pasley, the author of The Tao of Cooking (Indiana University Press, 1998), the Kale Whisperer’s Second Cookbook of Christmas.
Sally Pasley was one of a group of ashram members who had been mentored by a classically-trained French chef at the ashram’s original restaurant, Rudi’s Big Indian Restaurant, in upstate New York. She moved to the Bloomington restaurant in 1977, bringing a more classical vibe to the hippie eatery. Much to my delight, she also taught cookery classes. Under her steady guidance, I learned to make pastry and started my first foray into vegetarianism.
My copy of The Tao of Cooking is the original paperback, published in 1982 by Ten Speed Press, for which I paid $7.95 at Rudi’s (the current publishers price is $24.00 — cheaper at Amazon). It has followed me from Indiana to Ohio, California, Georgia, Virginia and, finally, to the Southern Hemisphere. It is splattered, dog-eared, and its spine is shot — as a well-loved cookbook should be. It was my first vegetarian cookbook and it is still on the top shelf of my cookbookcase. When I need a quick vegetable side, or a snappy salad, here’s where I go.
The Tao of Cooking represents its time. In the early 1980s, vegetarian cooking was making its transition from counter-culture to mainstream. You can find Hippie here: the Big Veg soy bean burger and Hobbit Pie (a personal favourite). But most of the recipes are refined, meat-free versions of European and Asian classics. Refined, but accessible, even to a beginning cook — as I was when I first bought my copy. The most exotic ingredient you’re likely to find is agar-agar (a vegetarian substitute for gelatine). Even for the Asian recipes, you are likely to find everything you need at a well-stocked supermarket. It doesn’t require any high-tech gadgets — the food processor was cutting edge, in those days.
My favourite recipes? My copy opens automatically to the Spaghetti with Eggplant, long a favourite, until I married my beloved but eggplant averse husband. The Pasta e Fagiole is classic and easy. I already mentioned the Hobbit Pie, whose mushroom and cheese filling I use in my Kiwi Pies (not made with actual kiwis). And because. . . you know. . .Wellington? Middle Earth? Hobbits?
The fussiest recipe I’ve found is the Lasagne Verdi, which requires two sauces and homemade pasta. But it is well worth the effort. So is the Country Pate with Cold Tomato Sauce.The side dishes and salads are simple and tasty. The Tao Dressing is a must-try. You’ll never look at Ranch Dressing again.
The best thing about The Tao of Cooking? It includes, amongst many delicious cake and pastry recipes I learned to make in Sally’s pastry class, the recipe for Rudi’s Poppy Seed Cake. So whenever I need to, I can bake my own little slice of midwestern comfort, even here in far away New Zealand. And on a really bad day, there’s the Poppy Seed Cake Hot Fudge Sundae. That will brighten up the stormiest of Wellington days.