At Home with Nava Atlas

Thanks to her husband's delight in her meatless meals, illustrator Nava Atlas switched gears and became one of the country's top vegetarian cookbook authors. We visit her in her comfortable Poughkeepsie home.



At Home with Nava Atlas

 

Art ¡ª edible and otherwise ¡ª has pride of place in the Poughkeepsie house of vegetarian cookbook author Nava Atlas

 

by Steve Hopkins  Photographs by Michael Polito

                       

Call it a happy accident that Poughkeepsie¡¯s Nava Atlas ¡ª trained as an illustrator and graphic designer ¡ª became an acclaimed writer of vegetarian cookbooks.

¡°My husband really liked my cooking,¡± she recounts. ¡°After we married he became a vegetarian right away because he had always wanted to. And when I cooked something he got me to write down the recipes, and I would illustrate them. And that became my first book.¡±

 

Vegetariana, published in 1984, offered a mix of healthy recipes, history, quotes about vegetarianism, and Atlas¡¯s charming drawings. ¡°It was really pretty successful for a first book,¡± she says. ¡°I got another contract right away. I¡¯d never really intended to become a cookbook writer, but each book was fairly successful and I was always offered another contract.¡± She¡¯s written eight books in all, as well as several updated editions.

Atlas and her husband, Harry Tabak, a realtor and sometime sculptor, have now been married for 26 years. The vegetarian life chosen by them has also been em­braced by the couple¡¯s two sons, Adam, 15, and Evan, 13. In fact, the two teens actually led the family¡¯s charge toward a 100 percent vegan diet.

 

¡°They¡¯d been vegetarians all their lives,¡± says Atlas, adding that both sons participated in each of the family¡¯s landmark dietary decisions ¡ª a progression that took them from being quasi-vegetarians to lacto-vegetarians to full-fledged vegans. ¡°My older son and I actually gave up eggs a few months before we became vegan. We knew things about the dairy industry from reading, so we decided to visit a local dairy farm, to see for ourselves what the process is really like,¡± she recounts. ¡°They were very nice and treated their animals extremely well ¡ª but even so, it didn¡¯t make us feel better.

 

¡°Then around two and a half years ago, my youngest son, who was 10 at the time, came home from camp one day and said: ¡®Well, now I¡¯m a vegan.¡¯ My older son followed a week later. I¡¯d been thinking about it for a while and hadn¡¯t said anything to the boys, but now I thought, ¡®If they¡¯re going to be vegans, I¡¯m going to be a vegan.¡¯¡± In other words, the organic apples didn¡¯t fall far from the tree.

 

Atlas¡¯s own conversion to vegetarianism took place while she was growing up in Michigan. ¡°That was teenage rebellion,¡± she says. ¡°Although I didn¡¯t like meat from the beginning; I would always have to have something done to disguise it, like have it in chili. Then I just stopped altogether.¡± Her decision didn¡¯t go over too well at first. ¡°But ironically,¡± she adds, ¡°as time went by, everyone in my family became a vegetarian.¡±

When Tabak and Atlas first met they were ¡°both starving artists ¡ª literally,¡± says Atlas. They got married and lived in bohemian splendor in New York City for seven years, but they hungered for a different lifestyle. ¡°I¡¯m not a real city girl,¡± notes Atlas. ¡°We wanted to move out to a semi-rural area and buy a house. So we kept migrating further and further north until we found an area where we could afford to buy our first house ¡ª in New Paltz, right outside the
village.¡±

 

The couple settled into the Hudson Valley¡¯s more gentle rhythm, plied their trades, made artistic friends on both sides of the river, and began to raise a family. Then they made what Atlas now calls a big mistake. ¡°We moved away from here for three years ¡ª three not very happy years in Connecticut,¡± she says.

 

Among the dozens of objects made by the family and displayed around their current home on a wooded dead-end road in Poughkeepsie is a small sculpture box created by Atlas, circa 1998, which is essentially an illustrated and annotated emotional time capsule featuring wadded-up maps and other metaphorical detritus from the family¡¯s blue period in Connecticut. ¡°It¡¯s called ¡®Losing Your Way,¡¯¡± confirms Atlas. ¡°It was more than just geographic. We realized how much we loved the Hudson Valley, and decided to move back. All our friends and the things we loved to do were here.¡±

 

Although they consider the entire mid-Hudson region the ¡°biggest small town in America,¡± the couple was drawn to Poughkeepsie for its well-regarded Day School. They enrolled the boys, then looked for property nearby. The multitalented Tabak designed their home himself. The unpainted frame exterior of the many-gabled contemporary blends in with the
surrounding trees. Large windows let the undulating landscape inside, where rooms are airy and spacious, decorated in natural tones accented by polished wood. The furnishings are primarily contemporary,
and art ¡ª paintings, sculpture, photographs ¡ª is everywhere.

 

Ever since the family¡¯s return to the region, says Atlas, life has been good. ¡°One of the things that drew us to the Hudson Valley is that it¡¯s very vibrant in the arts. Through the arts scene, everybody¡¯s connected somehow. There¡¯s so-and-so you know up in Woodstock and you run into that person in Beacon at a gallery. For a place so geographically large, it seems like there are a lot of places for people to connect.¡±

Being vegan apparently has had little effect on the family¡¯s social life. ¡°Most people we know aren¡¯t vegetarian, but when they come over for dinner, or we go to their homes, they know that we are, and respect that,¡± says Atlas. ¡°It really isn¡¯t an issue any more, especially now that there are so many delicious things to eat that are vegetarian. The popularity of ethnic cooking has certainly made things a lot easier. You can always whip up a nice stir-fry that everyone will like.¡±

 

Valley living suits the boys as well. ¡°They¡¯re at the age where you just drive them places,¡± says Atlas. Disparate as the interests of each family member are, they spend a lot of time together. ¡°We enjoy eating as a family,¡± says Atlas. ¡°We definitely try to do the whole family dinner thing each night.¡±

 

When not trucking the boys around, cooking, or creating artwork, Atlas is writing. (She also maintains an informative Web site, www.vegkitchen.com, which features lots of vegetarian recipes and tips.) ¡°If I¡¯m lucky, I get in a six-hour day,¡± she says.

 

Even the silky, bright-eyed family cat, Jasmine, is a vegan. ¡°She eats specially formulated vegan cat food from California,¡± says Atlas. ¡°It¡¯s got all the vitamins and ingredients cats need for a healthy diet.¡± The vegan cat sits purring on a pillowy couch by the wood stove, a happy testament to the resolutely gentle creed of her human benefactors. ¡ö

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