Serving More Than Just '70s Leftovers, the Legendary Moosewood Collective Is Still Healthy After All These Years

UPDATED 02/25/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/25/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

The world has changed, and here's incontrovertible proof: Moosewood no longer serves bean sprouts. "For years a plate wouldn't go out of the kitchen without them," says David Hirsch, a member of the 18-person collective that runs the legendary vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y. Then, a few months ago, Moosewood parted company with its bean-sprout supplier and, Hirsch says, "Nobody's missed them."

The demise of the sprout, long thought as essential to health food as the olive is to the martini, is just the latest evolution in Moosewood's cuisine, which achieved national recognition after the first Moosewood cookbook, published in 1977, introduced America to such delicacies as mushroom moussaka and gado gado, a spicy Indonesian vegetable dish. A sequel, New Recipes from Moosewood, followed in 1987. Now Moosewood has published its third volume, Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant (Simon & Schuster. $18.95), which is already in its fourth printing. "So many fans have been waiting for a new Moosewood book." says Dan Farley, publisher of Simon & Schuster's trade paperback division. "Moosewood has evolved from what was called health food in the 1960s, but it's lighter, not just good old hippie food. Plus, there's the behind-the-scenes appeal of the collective."

Ah, yes, the collective. "We're not a commune," insists Tom Walls, 39. "A lot of people don't realize that." A loose organization of seven free spirits, Moosewood started in 1973, when some 40 communes dotted the hills around Ithaca. No one is certain where the name came from; some say it may have been inspired by a dog named Moosewood in a book someone was reading at the time.

By 1978 Moosewood's founders wanted out, so they sold the restaurant to 18 members who had joined later. That nucleus, which shares the labor in the 53-seat restaurant on the ground floor of what once was a junior high school, has changed with the years. "Somewhere in the mid-'80s, all those restless types who didn't think they were making enough money left," says Winnie Stein, 40, a member for nine years. Adds-Linda Dickinson, 43, who built her house for $50 in 1973 from old ammo boxes she had bought for 3 cents each, "The ideals that brought us here are still alive. We're not dropouts; there's a love of a beautiful environment, the earth to grow things in."

The members of Moosewood must be in it for the idealism because the money isn't great. Members sign up for shifts, and everyone is encouraged to work four or five shifts a week. "We figure out our take, and then people get paid according to the amount of money we took in that day," says Tom Walls, who notes that his wife, an administrator at Cornell University, makes much more money than he does. For the members, it works out to anywhere from $6.50 to $9.50 an hour. "Nobody is getting rich," says Walls. "We're like flirting with the lower-middle class." Profits from the book are split among the members who contributed to it, and a percentage goes to the collective.

Modest though the bottom line may be, Moosewood is very much a business. It has profit sharing, a retirement fund (albeit a tiny one) and health insurance. Business decisions are reached democratically, and with 18 different points of view, board meetings can be lengthy. "We are intense and impassioned," says Laura Branca, a former bail bondsman and baker, "but we have gotten pretty good at handling things without causing permanent damage to our relationships."

Once a month, in keeping with the group's idealism, Moosewood has a Sunday benefit brunch for a member's favorite cause. One Sunday it might be for the homeless, another for local day-care centers, another for Cree Indians fighting a hydroelectric project in Quebec. Sunday is also the day when the members try out new recipes. If a new dish is a hit, it goes on the regular dinner menu. And if it's a big hit, it goes in the next book.

As for the future, the collective has ambitious plans. A book on kitchen gardens is already written; another is under contract. Moosewood's label may appear on canned soups. There is even talk of a TV show. "I have all sorts of fantasies," says Susan Harville, 44, who cast her lot with Moosewood in 1973. "Maybe Moosewoods along the highways—or maybe all of us retired in Florida."

—Michael Neill, Peggy Brawley in Ithaca

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