Cecilia Granata (writer and illustrator)
April 12, 2016
Mama Tried: Italian Cooking for the Screwed, Crude, Vegan & Tattooed is an Italian cookbook with two twists: it’s for vegans and tattoo lovers. Filled with vegan transformations of many classic Italian dishes and illustrated with food-inspired tattoo art, two veggie-lovin’ WWAC editors, Ginnis Tonik and Christa Seeley, each sampled some recipes and sat down to chat about the cookbook.
(Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Ginnis: Before we get started, why don’t we start with a little introduction about ourselves and our own eating preferences?
I am not a vegan or vegetarian, but I do eat a largely vegetarian diet, and I cook mainly vegetarian and vegan food. I love learning new and easy ways to make my meals vegan. Eating vegetarian isn’t a problem because while I do eat meat occasionally, I just don’t generally enjoy it, but I really like baking and dairy, so vegan alternatives are a fun challenge.
Christa: I’ve been a vegetarian for almost a decade now but even before that I didn’t really have a taste for meat. Since my mom was very much of the “if you don’t like what I made, you can cook your own dinner” school of thought, I learned to cook early on. After much trial and error, I have really learned to love cooking, and I especially love unique vegetarian cookbooks.
Gin: Me, too, but I felt this one was dated. That was immediately my first impression because so many of the recipes were based on meat substitutions as opposed to embracing plant-based dishes, and I think veganism has become mainstream enough that it’s less about finding ways to replace animal-based products and more like damn, plants are delicious. What were your first impressions of the book upon receiving it?
Christa: Plants are delicious. And since I never liked meat to begin with, recipes based on replacing animal products are not high on my list. I was, however, immediately impressed by Granata’s illustrations. They were such a distinctive style, and not something you would usually find in an Italian cookbook.
Gin: They were just fun, overall! I also should admit to being biased because I have quite a few Italian cookbooks (I mean I have a cookbook problem, they are like porn for me) that are not specifically labeled vegan or vegetarian, but have many, many vegan and vegetarian recipes – and the goal is not to be vegan, but that a lot of Italian cooking, particularly Southern Italian as I understand it, is based on working with local produce, so I kind of had that impression going into this book.
Christa, as a fellow foodie, I have to ask – do you feel the same way about cookbooks?
Christa: I definitely do. We moved recently and I purged quite a few from my collection, but I can guarantee I’ll have it built back up in no time. I can spend hours paging through a cookbook, with a stack of sticky notes.
Ideally, I like my cookbooks to have some images as well, mostly because I genuinely like looking at pictures of food. Unfortunately, even though I loved the illustrations in Mama Tried, there weren’t any illustrations or photos of the food itself. I would have appreciated them because some of the recipes were unfamiliar to me and I would have liked some context for them. A short anecdote or history of the dishes would have been great too.
Ginnis, since you already have some Italian cookbooks, did you find you were more familiar with the different dishes?
Gin: Overall, nothing really stood out as too out-there to me, though some of the ingredients, particularly for the sweets and desserts did. I really wanted to try the tart, but for one, I hate margarine; I usually just find other alternatives to butter. And two, when I had already begrudgingly stashed the margarine in my bag, I finally found agar agar flakes, and it was about $10.00 for a bag, and I thought when am I ever going to use those except for this recipe? I ended up just putting the margarine back. Again, that is where I feel the book gets dated because there’s many other cool and usually more affordable alternatives in vegan baking than that.
Christa: I actually don’t mind margarine (I know! It’s like cooking sacrilege), but there were a few other ingredients I came across that I don’t love – vegan cheese being one of them. I would rather just not have cheese, but I realize this is an Italian cookbook so that may be unavoidable. Also there was one recipe that called for a veggie dog? Which seemed weird to me.
After I flipped through the book a few times and got acquainted with the recipes, I realized the organization could have been a bit better. The book is organized into a few key sections, like Burgers, Salads, Rice & Risotto etc. But when I went pick to pick a Risotto to make, I found the table of contents was organized alphabetically by recipe.
Gin: I rely on indexes for my cooking because as someone who eats a lot of produce, most of my cooking decisions are based on: “oh, shit, this vegetable is about to go bad, what can I do with it?!” That is when I turn to the indexes of my favorite vegetarian or vegetarian-leaning cookbooks. You have to shuffle around in this one a bit more to find what you want.
Did you get to try any of the recipes?
Christa: I had never made risotto before so I figured this was the perfect opportunity and made the Bean & Tomato Risotto one night for dinner. The ingredients were all familiar and easy to find, and the instructions were only two steps so I figured it was a safe bet. Once I actually started cooking, however, I found some of the instructions a little vague, particularly when it came to measurements. For example it called for a “glass of red wine” which could mean very different things to different people. It also called for “vegetable broth, as needed” where I would have found a range or ballpark amount more helpful – at least for the first time I attempted it. In the end, thankfully, it all turned out ok and we all enjoyed the dish (which is the most important part). We also had plenty leftover for lunch the next day.
Which recipes did you try?
Gin: I had a similar experience with the ones I tried, and for the particular recipes I did in fact try, that sort of vagueness made a difference. I tried the Cauliflower Mini Burgers and the Lentil Burgers. Again, with the whole vagueness, the first one came out a mush that could not be turned into a patty – which, since I am pretty comfortable in the kitchen, I just improvised and went full on Southern girl on them. I called them grits and braised some greens to go on top. No problem. The second round at vegan burgers (I’m obsessed with vegan patties right now) turned out much better, but had similar problems like “pitted olives,” but no mention of how many. I used a whole can, it worked, but I found similar problems throughout the book – lots of vagueness and nothing about technique or anything of that sort.
For another example, my boyfriend made the Pasta with Broccoli Rabe for us one night when I was sick. He was surprised that a lot of classic Italian cooking techniques like reserving pasta water for thickening sauces wasn’t included, and he found he did a lot of improvising. Which, again, being comfortable in a kitchen, that’s not really a problem for us, but it is a shortcoming in a cookbook.
Christa: Despite the vagueness there are still a few more recipes that I would like to try (like the Coca & Chili Pepper Truffles), so I do see myself coming back to this cookbook now and then. I think once I have an opportunity to make some recipes a few times I’ll be able to improve my skills and fine tune the vague instructions/measurements to suit my family’s tastes. For example, next time I make the risotto I would add more tomato and a little less red wine to see how that turns out.
But even if I find a few recipes I really like from this cookbook I don’t see this becoming one of my go-to favourites. Chances are, I’ll only pull it out when I feel like experimenting and want to try my hand at something different.
Gin: Same here. Like I said before, I have several other Italian cookbooks that are largely vegetarian or even vegan. I could see myself though combining those with some of the ideas in this book for fully vegan meals.