Crescent Dragonwagon sounds like a funny name, but behind it is one serious cook, who knows her way around unusual ingredients
PUTNEY, Vt. — These are the last-minute directions to the house where cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon lives: “All-wheel drive is de rigeur [sic] during mud season. Which at this moment we’re in! (It’s also sugaring time . . . not unrelated as neighbors sugar and their truck does tear up the already mucky road.).”
It’s very quiet for the last few miles, few residences, and nothing but mud. But once inside the 18th-century farmhouse, there is relief from the endless slog. And slippers for guests, so they won’t trek in dirt. And many good aromas. The kitchen counter is full of produce, a slow-cooker in the dining room is chugging away, and the dining table is set for a vegetarian lunch that turns out to be a feast from “Bean by Bean,” Dragonwagon’s recently published eighth volume. She also wrote “Passionate Vegetarian,” for which she won a James Beard award.
With her bright red hair, chandelier earrings, hearty laugh, golf-course-green sweater, and edamame necklace, Dragonwagon, 59, is a cross between Lucille Ball and Carol Channing. You half expect her to break into song. What you get is a lot of stories, interesting tales that took her from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., the daughter of successful writer parents, to Eureka Springs, Ark. — “It has elements of Provincetown,” she says — where she ran a well-regarded restaurant and inn and hosted a young couple named Bill and Hillary Clinton (when they met, he had lost a bid for Congress).
But first to the funny name. She is so tired of telling the story of this albatross that she refers a visitor to her website (www.crescentdragonwagon.typepad.com). There, “Is that your real name?” tells the story of how the 16-year-old Ellen Zolotow and her then-fiance decided to rename themselves. They were living in a commune in Fort Greene, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. She had dropped out of high school and was attending Alternate U. in the city. Ellen means “the queen” and they were antiauthoritarian, she writes. Crescent means “the growing’’; he became Crispin for “the curly-headed one.” They decided on a “completely frivolous” family name, and over time Ellen Zolotow disappeared and in her place emerged Crescent Dragonwagon. “By the time I realized how long the remainder of my days might be,” she writes, “and that I’d be pulling [the name] around like a ball and chain, I already had a couple of books out and the start of a professional reputation.”
Over a dozen years ago, John Egerton heard about Dragonwagon and thought, “Maybe she’s Native American.” The Nashville author, who wrote “Southern Food,” was one of the founders of Southern Foodways Alliance and was looking for board members. He found Dragonwagon and thought she was “delightful” and perfect for the project: She was from Arkansas, a vegetarian, and a dynamic force. “Her name fit her. It’s a very creative name, sort of an attention-getting name,” he says, “and she’s not a shy person.”
Her logo is a dragon sitting at a typewriter. A sign in her kitchen reads, “Do Not Meddle / In The Affairs of Dragons / For You Are Crunchy / and Good With Ketchup.” She is standing at the cooking end of her Vermont kitchen, which, in this old house, is higher on that side, tossing a sugar-snap pea salad with oranges. Beside her is a “little starter thing,” called Dip a la Russe, a very pink, smooth mixture of silky tofu, Greek yogurt, Dijon mustard, and umeboshi plum paste (“a magic ingredient,” says Dragonwagon) to serve with crudites.
Minestrone with baby borlotti beans, cranberry beans, and peas is simmering on the stovetop, which later is ladled over pesto. The slow cooker is filled with chili mole, a meaty-tasting black bean version, with jalapenos, poblanos, chipotle, peanut butter, cumin, coriander, aniseed, and other spices. “I love the slow heat in this,” she says. She uses a Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker for other dishes. On the dining sideboard sits a Rose of Persia cake made with chickpea flour, sour cherry juice, and dried cherries. Cups of mousse, with lime, tofu, and cashews, are chilling.
All “Bean” recipes are vegetarian. “I’m on the social justice and environmental side,” she says. She calls herself a “laissez-fare” vegetarian, by which she means that even though she eats no meat, she will spend an afternoon cooking lamb for her mother’s Senegalese caretaker.
The book celebrates not just legumes, but vegetables such as green beans, flours made from peas and beans, and a few sides. Among those is a thin, crisp cornbread she assembles in minutes with yellow cornmeal and buttermilk in a sizzling cast-iron skillet. With it, she serves “Better,” equal parts butter, avocado or canola oil, and a little salt, which goes on the table and into the skillet.
The cornbread was often on the menu at Dairy Hollow House, the inn in Arkansas she owned with her late second husband, Ned Shank (by this time, Mr. Dragonwagon was long out of the picture), who died in a bicycle accident. Today in Vermont, she lives with David Koff, a documentary filmmaker who was nominated for an Oscar for “People of the Wind” (1976) about Iranian Bakhtiari nomads. They met online under pseudonyms.
He was living in Los Angeles, but he sleuthed out her identity by piecing together bits of her bio. “I was nonplussed about the name,” says Koff. When he found out that her mother was the children’s writer-editor Charlotte Zolotow (“Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present,” illustrated by Maurice Sendak, “My Grandson Lew” and “William’s Doll,” both illustrated by William Pène du Bois, and more than 50 others), and her father, Maurice Zolotow, was Marilyn Monroe’s first biographer, “that took away from any sense of strangeness of her name.”
Their first phone call lasted five hours (she’s a talker and he’s no slouch). She thinks of it as a seven-log phone call because it took that much wood to keep the fire going while they talked. She calls him “Davio.” When he was single, she says, “He lived on what I call kibble: yogurt, fruit, and granola in various forms.”
People who meet Dragonwagon never forget her. Ann Bramson, a founding editor of Workman Publishing, now publisher of its Artisan Books division, worked with Dragonwagon on her first volume, “The Bean Book: Cooking, Planting, Growing, Harvesting, Drying, Eating, and Just Thinking About Them.” The tall, skinny, spiral-bound book came out in 1972; the author wrote it at age 18; it was her fourth book.
“She was a teenager with a great deal of energy and preternatural instincts for someone so young, to nudge meat protein from the center of the plate,” says Bramson, who liked the way she cooked. “Her recipes are not too healthfood-y, they were tasty and satisfying without being hippie food.”
“She’s an interesting combination of spiritual and earthiness and humor,” says Charleston, S.C., cooking teacher and author Nathalie Dupree. “She doesn’t have any pretense, and she’s very, very, very smart.’’ The two met up this month at the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ conference in New York. “Those of us staying elsewhere in New York were trapped,” says Dupree. Dragonwagon did a Facebook post about crawling under a skirted table where it was quiet, taking a nap, then going to the ladies room to dress. “She was not the only one doing that kind of thing,” says Dupree, “but she was the only one talking about it.”
In her light kitchen, Dragonwagon is dressing the sugar snap pea salad, tossing it with her hands, plating it with her fingers. The house is a mishmash of old and rustic, but not perfect, renovations. Her late aunt owned the place and the young Ellen Zolotow would visit summers.
As with many things in her life, there’s a story here. “The property is in Westminster West, known to the locals as ‘West West’; we pay taxes in Westminster, the mailing address is Putney, and the phone extension is Saxtons River.” At one point, her aunt outlived her money and the house was going to be sold. “I cried for three days,” says Dragonwagon.
“I managed to buy the house with financing so creative, I should have gotten a MacArthur grant.”