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Vegetarian cookbook author Anna Thomas ladles out 'Love Soup'

'Soup is the portal to home cooking,' she says. At home in Ojai, she demonstrates.

October 14, 2009|Mary MacVean

Anna Thomas, a few canvas bags hanging on one arm, wanders the rows of the Ventura farmers market just eight hours before her guests are to sit around the table in the soaring great room of her home in Ojai. She chooses yellow onions and prune plums, leeks and walnuts as an ocean breeze cools the shoppers on one of the hottest days of the season.

Though she's hardly a familiar name today, Thomas is the one who in the early 1970s lured many a hungry idealist rebelling against a meat-and-potatoes childhood into the kitchen with "The Vegetarian Epicure," a seminal book that came out of nowhere to sell more than 1 million copies.

More than 30 years later, she has another new cookbook, "Love Soup," a collection of 100 soups and dishes to eat with them, that she hopes will lure a new generation into the kitchen in much the same way her first book did. Like so many cooks, she worries that people are losing touch with an essential skill and is determined to do her part to halt the decline.

And she sees soup as a solution. "I've been really thinking about this a lot. Soup is the portal to home cooking. You cannot make too terrible a mistake with soup," Thomas says. "Don't we want to know how to take care of ourselves a little?"

But today, changing the culinary world is the last thing on her mind. She's thinking about an evening with friends. Thomas has been cooking for her friends for decades; this will be a snap.

"Yes! Dinosaur kale!" she says, buying two bunches as she explains that it's named for "the way your toy dinosaurs looked. Because who knows what their skin really looked like?"

Although she doesn't need them for dinner, she takes the last two irresistible baskets of Gaviota strawberries from another farmer. And at the Peacock Farms stand, the young vendor assures her that although it's early in the season, the Fuyu persimmons are sweet.

"My favorite way to go to the market is not to have a plan, just to wander and see what calls me," she says, taking off her elegant, green-framed sunglasses to reveal eyes the color of the Caribbean.

In fact, her first cookbook, published in 1972, was her solution to caring for herself, albeit an audacious one. A UCLA film student without much money, she took the advice of friends who appreciated her cooking and wrote a book, and she has since balanced careers in film and food. At the moment, Thomas is working on a film dramatizing the life of Israeli poet Rachel Blaustein.

"The Vegetarian Epicure" stands as a culinary touchstone for many baby boomers. My copy came as a Christmas gift from my mother shortly after I graduated from college. As a girl who was well acquainted with tuna casserole held together by Campbell's mushroom soup, I considered myself sophisticated, even a little groovy, for making potage les deux champignons from Thomas' European-influenced, hippie-tinged book. (The pages of the book are back-to-the-land brown, and there's an acknowledgment that her readers just might smoke pot with their meals.)

The ratatouille page in my copy is splotchy, as is the one for sweet oatmeal raisin bread. There are risottos, curries and souffles -- not, as Thomas says, ideologically based vegetarian food.

And I'm not the only one with fond memories. "I just remember reading it cover to cover because she cooked like a European," says Martha Rose Shulman, author of "The Vegetarian Feast," published in 1979, and more than 25 other cookbooks. "It was the first vegetarian book that I really thought was done by a real cook," she says.

Thomas and her then-husband, director Gregory Nava, left Los Angeles for Ojai in 1985 with their two young sons. The previous year their film "El Norte" came out. Thomas and Nava wrote it; she produced, he directed, and they earned an Oscar nomination. They lived in a big ranch house, with a kitchen roomy enough for a couch.

After a divorce, and once her younger son finished high school, Thomas moved to a smaller house that snuggled up to the Topa Topa Mountains. But it needed renovation, and for three years she was left with a kitchen just 81 inches across, tucked into one part of the house. She put most of her kitchen equipment in storage.

But she kept cooking. Soup was a natural for the tiny space.

And she kept inviting friends, ringing the dinner bell with e-mails announcing, "The soup kitchen is open."

All that soup led to her new book and to an easygoing style of entertaining

"It was really cozy. It was really great," Thomas says.

In just a few hours, the soup kitchen, now -- post-renovation -- a soaring space around a lavishly long soapstone-topped island, will be open again.

Preparing the meal

We drive to her house along roads lined with orange trees, unpack our food, and Thomas puts me to work cleaning and chopping and measuring. We're making the dishes in a menu from the book: roasted kabocha squash and celery root soup, kale salad with cranberries and walnuts, and Octavia's gingerbread.

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