Vegetarian Diets: When I first started writing this book I didn't know anything about the vegetarian way of eating. But readers, and life, have educated me. I've been exchanging letters for about a year now  with a remarkable young lady named Ruth Miller. Age 13, she lives with her sister and parents on a small island, Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, in the Southern Caribbean, where her parents manage a religious radio station called Trans World Radio. Ruth and her parents are long-time vegetarians—vegans, actually.
So I asked her to write a comparison of various vegetarian styles of eating. After a silence of several months, I received her reply: 70 hand-printed pages, solidly covered with small lettering on both sides! Her research was excellent. She made many suggestions for not only this particular section but also many other chapters. So when you see "vegan" in a recipe title, or "Ruth's," that's who it came from! Vegetarian Reading and Ingredients: Start with The Mail Order Catalog for Healthy Eating because it's such a huge listing of vegetarian/vegan books and products: Box 180, Summertown, TN 38483; 800-695-2241; [email protected] usit.net; www.healthy-eating.com. For from-scratch, out-of-the-garden cooking, check out The Home-Grown Vegetarian by Labine, Burrill, and Nolfi. I also recommend the Around the World Vegetarian Cookbook, The. Moosewood Cookbook, and The New Laurel's Kitchen by Laurel Robertson (more than 500 vegetarian recipes and special sections on dietary needs of pregnant, elderly, infant, and sick persons). But then again, I never met a vegetarian cookbook (or a vegetable or a vegetarian) that I didn't like. Vegetarian Times is a popular magazine in this field: 800-829-3340; Canada and foreign call 904-446-6914; PO Box 5189, Pittsfield, MA 01203-5189. Powell's Books for Cooks & Gardeners stocks more than 10,000 recipe books: 800-354-5957; 3747 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97214;
www.powells.com. They carried mine even when everybody else was calling it "out of print" (they are very persistent people). Especially their Patty Merrill, who is really the one responsible for this fine new commercial-edition book being in your hands. Patty wrote Sasquatch Books a couple of years ago and asked, "Why don't you put out Carla's book?" So Chad Haight, Sasquatch's publisher, wrote me a letter asking, "Will you?" I answered, "Yes," and here's the book!
The Kinds of Vegetarianism: Now here's Ruth! "I'm going to try hard and give you an overview and summary of some distinct schools of thought. I am speaking from firsthand experience on all these diets; these classifications are representative of my own experimentation with vegetarian diets. For me, vegetarianism started as a health diet. Now it involves a lifestyle and way of viewing the world. In general, if you crave stuff like coffee, chocolate, salt, fat, sugar . . . it's a sign of addiction, not health. But please, don't make vegetarianism into an excuse for eating a lot of chemicalized junk, especially commercial meat substitutes. My whole way of thinking about vegetarianism centers around doing what is absolutely best for my body. That includes not only staying away from animal products (for me) but also avoiding all sorts of processed foodstuffs. My motto is to eat it as close to its original state as possible." Lacto-Ovo (or Lacto- or Ovo-) Vegetarian. Ruth: "This means one avoids meat, poultry, fish, etc., but eats milk and dairy products (lacto) and eggs (ovo). Or some eat just milk products or just eggs—in conjunction with fruit, vegetables, grains, etc., of course! Often such people try to make sure their diet equals a meat-inclusive diet in protein content, using a method called protein complementarity. Frances Moore Lappe has an informative book, Diet for a Small Planet, which takes this approach. Be careful on this diet, for many commercial dairy products are loaded with chemicals and saturated fat. For some people, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is the first step toward a total vegetarian diet." Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian Recipes. Okay Here I let Ruth turn it over to Melanie for a bit. Melanie Kohler, Haleiwa, HI, was my very first teacher (about '77) on vegetarian eating. She cooks a lot of lacto-ovo-vegetarian meals, the kind Ruth was just describing. Here's Melanie:
"Both my husband and I were born and raised as Seventh-Day Adventists (my father-in-law is an SDA minister). Danny grew up in California, but I'm a native Hawaiian (although I don't have any Hawaiian blood—I'm Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish, and Filipino). Danny's dad was transferred here to Hawaii to pastor our church while we were both in high school, and we've been sweethearts since then. We're now 26 and 27 years old, have a 2V2-year-old miniature Danny, and live on 2VS acres of hilltop land about 40 miles from Honolulu.
"Not all Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians—I never have been one, but Danny was raised as one and got his eating habits changed while he was in the army. We are allowed to eat beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, and fish, but not unclean food such as pork and shellfish. But although we aren't vegetarians, we do have vegetarian meals about 2 or 3 times a week—both because we feel that it is healthful and to keep the cost of our food down (since we don't raise any livestock). You really can't beat vegetarian dishes (if prepared the right way) for tasty and, most of all, economical food!
"The Cottage Cheese Patties recipe that I sent you earlier is one of our favorites. It's also my old standby to take to church potlucks, and I never have to take home any leftovers!"
COTTAGE CHEESE PATTIES Melanie: "Combine I c. cottage cheese, I c. bread crumbs, I c. rolled oats, I onion chopped fine, 2 T. chopped parsley, 2 to 3 eggs, and salt and sage to taste. Form into patties and fry. Place browned patties in baking dish. Cover with tomato sauce. Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes or until gravy bubbles. This recipe should serve about 4 to 5 people.
"I usually make several recipes of patties, cool them after frying, and then place them in plastic bags and put in the freezer. Then, whenever we have unexpected guests, get home late from work, or whatever, I can just take out however many patties I need, put them in a baking pan, pour tomato sauce over, and bake until bubbly. You can also pour cream of mushroom soup over to make the gravy, or use homemade brown gravy, or just eat the patties plain with a little ketchup. The mixture can also be formed into balls, fried, added to spaghetti' sauce, and served over cooked spaghetti. Actually, you can fix up these patties just about any way you want—just use your imagination and whatever you have in your pantry!"
Melanie: "A couple of good recipes that I got while majoring in home economics at Walla Walla College in Washington state are for Walnut Cheese Patties and Imperial Roast."
<l> WALNUT CHEESE PATTIES Melanie: "Mix together 6 chopped hard<ooked eggs, I c. cottage cheese, I ground onion, !A c. soft bread crumbs, I t salt Vi c. ground nuts, and 2 T. chopped parsley. Shape into patties; dip into beaten eggs and dry bread crumbs to coat. Brown lightly in hot oil and place in baking dish. Pour desired gravy (tomato sauce, mushroom soup, or brown gravy) over and bake at 350°F for I hour."
IMPERIAL ROAST Melanie: "Mix together 'A c. cooked brown rice (or white, if you don't have brown), I chopped hard<ooked egg 2 c. dry cubed bread, I 'A c. chopped walnuts, 3 T. evaporated milk, I Vi t salt and Ai t sage. Place in oiled pan to a depth of about 2 inches. Bake at 400°F for about I hour. Serve with gravy."
<i> EGGPLANT MAIN DISH Melanie: "If you like eggplant like I do, a very easy and tasty dish that can be used as either an entree or a side vegetable can be made as follows: Slice eggplants (as many as needed to feed your family) into approximately 'A-inch-thick slices. Dip slices into beaten egg and then dredge in mixture of Pour, salt and pepper. Fry slices in oil until golden brown and set aside. Chop I or 2 onions and fry in same pan until golden. Place a layer of eggplant slices in a greased baking dish, sprinkle with some of the sauteed onion, and pour some tomato sauce over. Repeat layers until all of the onions and eggplant slices are used up; end with a layer of tomato sauce over all. Bake at 350°F until bubbly (30-45 minutes)."
"These next few recipes are some I've gotten at various times from different ladies in my church."
<P> CARROT AND NUT LOAF Melanie: "Combine 2 c. ground raw carrots, IA c. dried bread crumbs, 'A3 c. milk (or more), 3 T. oil, I chopped onion, Ai c. chopped nuts, and salt to taste. Add I or 2 eggs if needed to moisten. Put into a greased baking dish, cover, and bake at 350°F for I hour. Uncover for the last few minutes to brown top."
<P> RUTH'S VEGAN CARROT LOAF Here's Ruth's version: "Mix 3 c. finely shredded carrots, I c. toasted bread crumbs, Vi c. (more or less) rice milk, I grated onion, 2 cloves garlic, I Vi t curry powder, Vi c. sliced water chestnuts (or peeled, chopped broccoli stalks), and 2 T. tomato paste. Bake covered for an hour at 350° F"
<P> PRINCESS LOAF Melanie: "Saute A c. chopped onion and combine with Vi c. cooked brown rice, 2 beaten eggs, Vi c. evaporated milk, I c. bread crumbs, A c. sour cream, 2 T. margarine, I c. chopped walnuts, A t sage, and I t salt Bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes."
<&> PECAN LOAF Melanie: "Mix together 4 eggs, I c. chopped pecans, A c. chopped parsley, 'A c. melted butter, A onion, chopped, I c. finely chopped celery, 2 c. oats, 3 c. milk, and salt to taste. Bake at 350°F for 45 to 60 minutes, or until loaf is set"
<P> EGG FOO YUNG Melanie: 'This is another one of our old family favorites, prepared very simply with whatever we happen to have in the refrigerator or in the garden. I don't have any particular quantities for anything in this recipe— just vary it according to whatever you have and how many you plan to serve. I use home-sprouted mung bean sprouts, carrots (cut in slivers), green beans (sliced thin, diagonally), celery (cut same as beans), onions (sliced thin), bell peppers (sliced thin), etc. Canned bamboo shoots and water chestnuts may also be added for a more exotic touch, but they're really not necessary. Mix all ingredients (all vegetables are still raw) and add enough beaten eggs to hold together. Fry in large patties and serve hot with steamed rice and soy sauce. The vegetables should still be crunchy and the eggs a golden brown. A sweet-sour sauce to serve with the patties may also be made from soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar or lemon juice, a pinch of salt and cornstarch to thicken.
"This is a good dish to prepare ahead—have all of the vegetables sliced and mixed ahead of time, and then add eggs right before dinner. Bring your electric skillet to the table and fry the egg patties right there at the dining table so your family can have them piping hot as they are ready for them. "Well, Carla, I've been typing this straight through, and I'm pooped! After doing these few pages, it's even more of an amazement to me how you managed to ever do all of those 600-plus pages! And especially with 5 children around the place—I know what kind of trouble my little one can get into the minute I turn my back, and to multiply that by 5 just boggles my imagination! Love and aloha!"
See the soybean section in Chapter 4 for more recipes from
Ruth and Melanie. From here on, the diets and recipes have no animal products, milk, or eggs. My friend Mary at the Cooperative Extension office urged me to point out that people who eliminate from their diet all animal products, including milk and eggs, risk iron, B-12, and calcium deficiency, and pregnant women are at particular risk on such a diet. So there it is: On any of the following diets, please make sure you're getting enough iron, B-12, and calcium—especially if you're pregnant! macrobiotics: Melanie: "Macrobiotics is a complete lifestyle-diet (as most vegetarian diets become if you live that way long enough). In my experience, it is popular among people who are involved with meditation, yoga, and Eastern teachings. The main tenet seems to be a balance of yin and yang, with all foods being in one or the other category. This diet involves a lot of food-preparation and cooking techniques. There are books on Zen cookery in many bookstores."
Raw-Food Vegetarian: Back to Ruth: "You could classify this as the other extreme from lacto-ovo. The strict form confines the eater to a mainstay of fruits and above-ground, succulent vegetables. The "modified" raw-food eater adds sprouted grains and seeds. In the raw-food school of eating, there are very definite subdivisions, with various people promoting their differing opinions and research. Some say a diet of mostly raw fruit is best; others preach the glories of sprouting everything in sight and eating at least 4-8 oz. of nuts every day. It's a highly individual matter. Some people use an extreme form of the diet for a while, and then settle down to a modified form of the diet; others strictly stick to raw foods. When I was eating all raw foods, 60 percent of that was fruit. [See the section on sunflowers in Chapter 4 for protein dishes based on raw sunflower seeds.]
"But a word of warning. A few rather scary phenomena may temporarily accompany a change to a strict raw-food diet, especially if your previous diet has been very different from that. Often diarrhea or a flu-like reaction can result from the change in diet. This passes in a few days to a few weeks, depending on the individual.
"I don't follow a 100 percent raw diet any more, partly because of the unavailability of suitable vegetables and nuts here on Bonaire. But since I live in the tropics, I still do eat 50 percent of my food as fruit, and about 70-80 percent is uncooked, both fruits and veggies." Raw-Food Vegetarian Recipes. All these recipes are from Ruth.
ALMOND MAIN DISH 'Try these for a different (raw-food) main dish! Get out your food grinder and start grinding almonds until you have a cup of almond butter. Now run through the grinder 2 c. chopped broccoli (flowers and stalks), 2 quartered red bell peppers, and Vi c. raisins that have been soaked overnight. Mix these vegetables with 2 c. 3-day lentil sprouts, I c. finely minced celery, and 6 minced tomatillos. Then add the almond butter and knead till well mixed. Use an ice cream scoop to make round balls. Serve balls in individual bowls with lettuce linings. Garnish with slivered almonds."
<i> VEGETABLE NUT LOAVES "One recipe is enough for 4 or 5 people. Natural Hygienists use this like tofu or seitan because it is endlessly versatile and can be molded into loaves, balls, or any other desired shapes. Combine 6 to 7 c. assorted shredded raw vegetables (anything from cabbage or celery to pumpkin, kohlrabi, zucchini, or sprouts), A c. nut meal (coarsely ground nuts that are not a butter), and 3A> c. nut butter (raw, freshly made)."
W> TROPICAL RAW PIE CRUSTS "For 2 crusts: Mix 2 c. fresh shredded coconut, I c. almond butter, Vi c. grated apples, and I lb. chopped moist dates. For one 10-inch pie-plate crust Use I lb. chopped dates, Ai c. finely grated apple, Ai lb. walnut butter, and I Ai c. finely grated fresh coconut. For a fig crust■ Grind equal amounts of shelled raw almonds and un-soaked, dried figs together and press into pie plate."
NUT/DATE PIE FILLING "Try A c. nut butter mixed with juice of I lemon, 'A c. pureed dates, I c. soaked pureed currants, and 3 c. grated tart apples. (Fruits can be varied to taste and need.)"
BANANA COCONUT PIE FILLING "Mash 4 ripe bananas and mix with I c. grated fresh coconut (If you put coconut with half a vanilla bean in an airtight container for a while, it adds an extra twist.) Put mix into piecrust. Set in freezer for an hour before serving."
PECAN PIE FILLING "Crush I c. shelled unroasted pecans and then mix with I c. mashed banana, I c. ground dried figs, and some cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into piecrust Top with whole pecans. Chill before serving." Soup the Natural Hygiene Way. Ruth: "When you make soup this way, heat the kettle and the serving bowls and have the ingredients at room temperature before preparing, but don't cook the soup. (You heat the kettle with boiling water.) The soup ends up being as warm as you can eat it without burning your tongue, but the enzymes are still intact! (You can prepare the soup in a kettle that has been heated and is still standing in hot water.) Here are some of examples:
W> TOMATO SOUP "Blend 3 c. tomato juice (fresh!) with 'A cup favorite nut butter. Pour into heated kettle (a bowl of hot water, not a pan heating on the stove). Stir in 2 finely chopped tomatoes and half of a finely chopped red bell pepper. When soup is thoroughly warm, serve in heated bowls."
W> MINESTRONE "Blend 4 c. tomato puree and A c. fresh nut butter. Place in water-heated kettle. Add I c. corn sliced off the cob (uncooked, fresh), I c. freshly shelled peas, I diced tomato, I minced bell pepper, some diced celery, and Vi c. shredded carrot"
PEA SOUP "Blend 3 big tomatoes with 2 c. fresh green peas and the flesh of I avocado. Place in water-heated kettle. Stir in I finely chopped celery stalk, I finely chopped bell pepper, and I more c. fresh peas. Serve in heated bowls."
BORSCHT "For each person, use 2 c. diced raw beets, I c. warm liquid (water or beet juice), juice of half a lemon, and Aa c nut butter. Liquefy in blender and then warm it. Some people like it thicker, with more nut butter." organic Vegan: Ruth: "This is the diet my whole family and I presently follow. We call it 'vegan' for short. The formal definition of an organic vegan diet is no salt, processed fat, or refined sugar; no meat, fish, or poultry; and no milk or eggs. It takes a little thinking, planning, and doing to get going with this diet, but gradually you'll discover a wide variety of things to do with grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits that can more than adequately meet your nutritional requirements. Things you'd never thought of before! And you are much healthier on this type of diet. The McDougall Plan by John McDougall, M.D. (Piscataway, NJ: New Century Publishers, Inc., 1983), which is available at most natural food stores, covers this type of diet. Here's how you adapt recipes to a vegan diet..." Sugar- and Salt-Free. "If you really miss the sugar or salt, be patient. Taste buds can be trained to enjoy the flavors of unsalted, unsugared foods. If you're eating food the way it comes from nature, the flavor is unbeatable, and you can supplement it with herbs and spices. The body does need sodium but not sodium chloride. You can get all the sodium you need, properly balanced with potassium, from fruits and vegetables. Tamari, which is a natural soy sauce from Japan with no chemicals added, can be used as a nice salt substitute for flavoring. Natural sugar in fruits, plain sugar cane, and other unprocessed sweets such as sorghum, molasses, maple syrup, and honey are all right to use." Oil-Free. "Natural fats are found in avocadoes, bananas, nuts, and seeds. In bread making, fat and oil are totally unnecessary. We make great bread using flour, water or vegetable juice, and yeast only! No sugar, salt, or fat. Here are some tips we use for eliminating fat while keeping flavor:
"Saute or fry without oil. Use V4-V2 c. water or vegetable stock with herbs to saute onions, etc. If need be, you can just shine a griddle with oil. Shortenings and oils can be totally and completely left out of recipes for baked goods like muffins and most breads (shortbread and pound cake you shouldn't be eating anyway!). When moisture and extra sweetness is needed, substitute applesauce or mashed banana for oil and sugar. Eggs can also be eliminated with a bit of experimentation. Try a few spoonfuls of wheat flour to hold something together; in the pancake/pudding-type recipes, some steamed/mashed potato or cauliflower holds things together nicely. For mayonnaise or sour cream, we substitute sesame-seed butter (oil poured off the top) whipped with water and lemon juice to proper consistency. Or soft tofu."
Vegan Flavor. "It's amazing how you can develop a new, healthy cooking style so that you don't even miss the old foods. (It takes about 3 months.) Your taste buds really start to respond to the flavors of the natural foods, herbs, and spices; salty, fatty, sugary food just tastes gross! A hint for flavor: Steamed vegetables have more taste than boiled ones. It's easy to get in the habit of steaming instead of boiling using a little collapsible steam basket. (We have 2!) The flavors of 2 different vegetables stay separate if you steam instead of boil them. Nutrients are also well-preserved because the water doesn't touch the food. Herbs in the water add a different twist; the leftover water is great for soup stock. Tamari and miso also help make vegan soup but are not necessary (or always available on Bonaire). Mashed beans are wonderfully versatile for dressings and dips." (See Chapter 3 and Chapter 4, especially the dried bean and soybean sections, for more by Ruth.)
<P> RUTH'S STEAMED VEGAN MEDLEY "I like this simple, flavorful dish! Steam a beet a potato, a turnip, a carrot a stalk of broccoli, a zucchini, and % head cabbage for each person (add or delete any vegetables). Keep all warm until time to serve. Serve drizzled with lemon juice. Or slice the vegetables and tubers into matchsticks and bake them in a covered casserole. Serve that also with lemon juice."
Vegan Meal Planning. Ruth: "Breakfast can be skipped, or many people like to eat fruit for it—or some hot cereal if it's a cold winter. Lunch can be soup and sandwiches or your main meal. For supper, instead of featuring a main dish plus side dishes, you might like to try serving 3 lesser dishes together. Always serve a huge raw salad first, then maybe a starchy grain or vegetable and some steamed ones, or an elaborate dish. Or just add some cooked beans or grain to the salad and call it a meal. We like to concentrate on the main dishes and forgo dessert, but you could sometimes serve fruit or a honey-fruit-bread for a dessert."
Vegan Preparation Principles and Substitutions: This is what I extracted from those many pages and scores of recipes from Ruth, trying to boil it down to what she actually does.
Do Steam, Bake, or Saute. Avoid boiling. Steaming, baking, or the quick-fry method called sauteing are the healthiest ways to cook vegetables if you want to protect and preserve their vitamin content. To saute, use water or tomato juice or tomato sauce instead of oil. Or "shine" your pan by rubbing with a cut potato instead of using oil. Or just use enough cooking oil for that "shine." Never fry in deep fat. Don't Use Animal or Processed Fat. Substitute banana, avocado, nuts, tahini (blended sesame seeds), or other oily seeds daily in order to get a natural source of unprocessed, vegetarian fat in your diet (which your brain and body need to function normally).
Boullion Cube Substitute. Substitute a slug of tamari or a spoonful of miso.
Meat, Milk, or Egg Substitute. Substitute bread crumbs soaked in rice milk (or soy milk) to hold a dish together. For the taste, add a mashed block of tofu that has been marinated in a mixture of tamari, water, sage, basil, and oregano. Or substitute gluten (see the section on unleavened breads in Chapter 3), seed protein dishes (see the sunflower section in Chapter 4), or soybean products (see soybean section in Chapter 4).
Marinade. When appropriate, marinate foods in lemon juice or tamari; add herbs as desired. Salad Dressing Substitute. Use lemon juice as the base, varied with a little water, or half and half with tamari, or a drop of Tabasco sauce. No oil. Ruth eats salad every day, usually as the main dish at dinnertime, before the cooked food. Her salads are about V2 to xh lettuce, the rest being any or all of these: cabbage, tomato, sweet pepper, all sorts of sprouts (especially lentil sprouts), onion, cauliflower, mushrooms, green beans, peas. They're all chopped up and tossed with dried herbs, garlic powder, and her choice of spices.
Milk Substitute. Use soy milk diluted with 2 parts water. But cereals and such cooked in apple juice are wonderful plain or with applesauce. Or use rice milk: In blender, process 4 c. water with 1 c. cooked brown rice until smooth. Refrigerate; shake before using. Makes 1 qt. Or use nut milk: Blend 4 c. water with 3A c. blanched almonds. May be strained before refrigeration. Use just as you would dairy milk. Shake before using. Makes 1 qt. (Other nuts can also be used.)
Mayonnaise Substitute. Ruth uses plain lemon juice, a nut butter whipped with water, or soft creamy tofu with lemon juice.
<i> GREASELESS WHITE SAUCE OR GRAVY Ruth: "Use as much water as you need sauce, and about one-fourth as much whole wheat flour. Toast the flour over dry heat in a skillet for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Take from heat Gradually whisk in water, blending well; then return to low heat and stir occasionally until thickened. Season as desired (nice seasoning blends include basil, dill, cumin; basil, tarragon, marjoram; thyme, sage, oregano; or your own). Use when white sauce is needed."
Sugar Substitute. For each IV2 c. sugar in a recipe, use 1 c. frozen apple juice concentrate. When suitable, thicken apple juice to a runny paste by boiling with arrowroot or cornstarch, as for making a pie. Cheese Substitute. In a casserole recipe, use bread crumbs, herbs, and a dash of tamari in place of cheese. Salt, Pepper, and Butter Substitute. Use herbs. And I note that Ruth and her family frequently use "a dash of tamari" or a bit of miso for flavoring—both high-salt items. So they are getting this necessity for life somehow. But obviously, unlike most of us, they're not getting too much of it, and that's the good news.
Some years back, I wanted to do a really thorough rewrite of the chapter on vegetables [Chapter 4] because I'd learned so much more since I first wrote it. I also knew so much more about what people wanted and needed to know from the letters they had written me asking questions. So on one of my trips around the country talking about country living, I wrote about vegetables in all my spare time. I came back home with pages and pages of manuscript, scribbly looking but full of information ready to be typed up. After I got my scribbling done, I threw out the many wonderful letters and other source material that I used in writing it.
Well, it happened that those scribbles all got lost. That really hurt. They never did turn up.
Did you ever hear of that fellow in England, a long time ago, who wrote a huge wonderful history of England? He had just finished it. It took him something like 7 years to write the thing. And a new housecleaner, while he was away from home for the day, threw the entire manuscript in his fireplace and burned it up. (She didn't mean to do anything bad. She thought it was trash.)
You remember what he did then? He sat down and wrote it all over again. It became a very famous book, and students studied it for generations. He was a great man.
I had that happen to me once before. Back in my college days, I decided to write a novel—a great novel, nothing halfway for me. I was about 24. Managed to spend a whole summer in Canada writing, and more time other places too (mostly at home), until there was a pile of manuscript pages about 2 inches high, mostly typed on only 1 side of the pages. Raggedy emotional poetical stuff—but still, it was my life's work to date. I had outlined it to be an allegory on 5 levels. I was going to be right up there with Goethe and Dante.
My mother died when I was 20. She was an English teacher all her life, longed to be a writer, and would have been proud to think her daughter was one. She did write part of a novel, back in the days when the Southern historical novel was a big thing—everybody wanted to do a Gone with the Wind—and sent it to a publisher. He wrote back and said he liked it. Then she wrapped it up carefully in brown paper and string and never touched it again—I think maybe because she was writing about her own very unhappy childhood as an alcoholic's daughter in Mobile, Alabama.
When she died, my father gave me the manuscript. I couldn't read it right then. The pain was too new and too great. I decided I would read it later, after I wasn't hurting so much. In the meantime, I set out to write my own novel and hoped she would be proud of me. I threw out everything I'd ever written before—poems, short stories. I didn't want to lean on past accomplishments. I wanted to put it all into this new manuscript. I worked a lot and for a long time, until it seemed right to let it rest a while, come back and look at it later, and then figure out what to do with it next.
About then, I got an opportunity to go overseas to Taiwan (I was a college student then, studying Chinese). I jumped at the chance to go and learn from people who were born speaking the language. I left all my books, most of them with my name written in them by my mother (she always gave me books for Christmas and birthdays), and my manuscript and hers in a house in Casper, Wyoming (why I left them there would be a whole other story). I was overseas for a year and a half.
When I came back I felt ready to read Mother's novel and go back to work on mine. I learned my stuff had been moved from that house into a man's garage. But when I got there, the man who owned the garage told me that just a week before he had cleaned the garage, and the stuff he couldn't give away he had sent to the Casper city landfill. At the landfill they kept a constant fire going with the flammable trash. I went there and looked—in vain. I cried and walked around the edge of the dump, seeing the smoke curl up everywhere. I was too late. Mother's manuscript and mine had been burned. I really thought I'd never write again.
I did, though. But I never wrote the same as before. I didn't ever again hide away my stuff to meditate on it, perfect it, wait on it, and dream of publishing a perfect masterpiece some far-off day, as I'd done before. Instead, I wrote small pieces and tried to share them any way I could before something happened to them—before they got burned or some such. I took poems to a street corner in Greenwich Village. There I wore a sandwich board that announced "Poems for Sale." When it came time to first share this recipe book, I mimeographed copies and peddled them.
Sounds nuts, doesn't it? But it worked. Every reader on that street corner taught me something by the expression on their face, by where they lingered and where they flipped pages. Every interaction with a reader defined me to myself more earnestly as a writer and fired me up to go home and try again, harder. And every reader fulfilled a rite of passage from my heart and mind to theirs that somehow was the intended destiny of those words I wrote—and without which passage I was wretched.
So that's how I learned way back then that it's better to put an unfinished, imperfect book into a reader's hands than to risk having a someday-to-be-absolutely-perfect manuscript burning in a dump. I learned that if I get material published somehow, it's safely "out there." That way, if I lose my copy, I can always borrow one from a reader and carry on the task of trying to get it right—or lighter—in the next edition!
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