Name: Deborah Madison
Born: West Hartford, Connecticut
Lives: Galisteo, New Mexico
Role: Chef, writer
In the winter of 2005, Deborah Madison was cooped up. She had accompanied her husband, the artist Patrick McFarlin, on a fellowship in Ireland, and the roads were too busy and narrow to walk on, so she found herself writing a memoir. It seemed like a good time to look back on her life as a chef, food writer, and slow-food activist. But after reading over the pages, she hated it. She put the memoir away and didn’t return to it for some time.
Flash forward to our meeting over migas and chilaquiles at Harry’s Roadhouse this February; soon the book will be published by Knopf. She’s published more than ten cookbooks, but this is her first stab at writing about her own life. Though, of course, if you’ve read her recent books, Vegetable Literacy and In My Kitchen, you know just how much of her life bleeds through her writing, even into the lines of a recipe.
Madison, who was a chef at Chez Panisse and founder of Greens Restaurant, had moved from San Francisco to Flagstaff in 1988, where she did drawings for James Turrell. Flagstaff, at the time, had no farmers market, no slow food. After a while, she realized that she needed “to live around agriculture.” Already familiar with the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, she and McFarlin decided that Santa Fe was the place to go. The day after arriving in Santa Fe, not yet unpacked, Madison went to the market and overheard that they were looking for some help. That same Saturday in 1990, she started managing the market. Madison went on to found the beloved Café Escalera in Santa Fe with chef David Tanis and restaurateur Brian Knox.
Best known for her work in the slow food movement and her writing on vegetarian cooking, Madison finds herself nostalgic for the passion about the old ways of doing things that was part of food culture when she was a chef and starting out as a food writer. These days, she is most excited about grains. Last year, she attended grain school in Colorado and learned about ancient grains and native grains. She has Sonoran wheat and Turkey Red lying dormant in her garden and hopes to plant some amaranth this year. This winter, celery root has been a staple in her kitchen. She turns it into a chowder with native wild rice. Native plants interest her far more than they used to, and she has plans to grow raspberries and grapes, which are native to New Mexico.
Madison’s effects on food culture and her work to make vegetarianism mainstream have a long-standing reach across the United States. In New Mexico, her latest impacts are focused on small, everyday choices: what to plant in her garden, how to cook with the seasons and drought conditions. As a mentor to a high school student, she shares her kitchen and her wisdom each week, imparting the value of eating with the seasons. “Winter is not a hard time for flavor, but it’s a hard time for color.” Her celery root chowder, which I made during the last February cold snap, proves this to be heartily true.
Every Saturday, Madison makes the trip from Galisteo to the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, though she has to get there earlier than ever to miss the crowds. (It occurred to me that the existence of these crowds has an awful lot to do with her work and influence, but I didn’t say so.) As for her memoir, when she picked up the pages from 2005, she realized they weren’t so bad after all. “I decided to just write it, but I didn’t know how it would end,” she explained. “You can have many memoirs: they’re slices of a life.” This slice is about “nourishment,” she says. “What are the meals that really spoke to me, and why? It has to do with the heart—and what people put forth.” For Madison, nourishment comes not just from food but from what you choose to grow, how you choose to grow it, how you prepare it and serve it. And it can connect you to the land and to the traditions of the past.
In the New Mexico Women column, I share the stories of women who have made and are making New Mexico what it is today, who shape the art, language, literature, land, and culture. As much as possible, I draw on these women’s own versions of their stories—my own interviews with the subjects, their autobiographical writings, their work, and whatever else I can find.