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Molly O’Neill: The Interview

Ten years ago, former New York Times food columnist Molly O'Neill hit the road. She drove coast to coast, on dirt roads and asphalt, through big cities and tiny villages, on a mission to peek into kitchens and debunk rumors that Americans were no longer cooking at home. She was right — after logging over 300,000 miles, she has an 800-page cookbook to prove it. One Big Table is a moving and mouthwatering portrait of the United States, told through the dishes that real people are putting on the table and passing down through generations.

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Megan Zabel: Where did the idea for this book come from?

Molly O'Neill: Well, my very first book was called New York Cookbook. When I did it, I walked around all five boroughs collecting people's stories and their recipes, and I knew that I wanted to do that same project for America. But, America is just a little bit bigger than New York City. [Laughter] So, it took a little while to do.

Megan: Ten years?

O'Neill: Yes.

Megan: Did the concept of the book change over time, or is the final project what you had envisioned from the start?

O'Neill: There are a couple changes. I envisioned a black-and-white book, and the publisher really saw a color book. I have to say that he was right. And I expected less art and more recipes, but I really believe in the changes. It made a much better book. Now, there are stories. The American story is told through recipesThe American story is told through recipes, and it's told through text, and then the pictures and images tell it in yet another way. I love that it can be told in three different ways.

Megan: I was struck by how many photos of people there are. It seems like cookbooks now just have all these huge, glossy...

O'Neill: The heroic shot of food.

Megan: Yes.

O'Neill: I'm not into that. That's not what I do. [Laughter]

Megan: You write in the introduction that you stalked the country's best cooks by region. How did you know where to start, and where did you get your tips?

O'Neill: Well, I was still at the New York Times when I started this book, and readers were always writing to me, and I would write back and say, "Who is your favorite cook in town? Do you have a recipe? Who's the best cook in your family?" I was always out speaking and reporting, and I would get tips that way.

And then, when I left the New York Times, I made an alliance with America's Second Harvest [now Feeding America], the nation's food-bank network. I worked with them to create a movement of potluck dinners across America, which brought in recipes for me and donations of any kind to local food banks.

Those events were really powerful, and I met a lot, a lot, a lot of people who were wonderful cooks who would bring their covered dish and a recipe. And a lot of times, as we talked, we realized that actually there were other recipes that might even be better, and then they would send me recipes, and, you know, it went like that.

Megan: The book features 600 recipes, but you began with over 10,000 contributions. Can you talk about how you narrowed down that list?

O'Neill: First of all, you have to go through and see, jeez, are these truly original? A lot of times, I might be given a recipe "from my Aunt Dodo," and I don't know that Aunt Dodo's cousin got it out of Joy of Cooking.

So part of my job was to make sure that recipes were really original. And then I looked for recipes that made me think about a dish in a different way, and I looked for recipes that were delicious, and cooks who were just irrepressible and real community leaders.

And then sometimes I had to pick up the phone and call somebody who runs a cooking store and say, "Didn't you tell me that you knew somebody who made a great lasagna, blah, blah, blah," and go after it that way.

Megan: Instead of focusing on the dishes that people automatically associate with certain geographic regions, you instead feature dishes that real people in those areas are actually making. Was the region a factor when determining merit? For instance, did a fried-chicken recipe from the South have more cred than one from somewhere else?

O'Neill: No. The regionality is a huge factor because different things grow in different places — and, you know, food is about two things: it's about agriculture and it's about culturefood is about two things: it's about agriculture and it's about culture. And agriculture and culture shift subtly from region to region.

But my favorite fried chicken in this book comes from New Jersey, from Cape May. The great grandmother was from the South, but today they are practicing their chicken in Cape May. There's a lot of flexibility. People move between places, so regionality kind of spreads and becomes more national.

Megan: What were the challenges of covering such a broad range of cuisine?

O'Neill: Oh, gosh! There were a lot of times we just couldn't see the forest for the trees. There were times when it was simply just overwhelming. There were times when I needed to call in friends and other people to say, "Please help me with this. I cannot look at these thousands of recipes and know which are the 150 that we absolutely have to pursue." I wanted to choose recipes that will be around for a while. I wasn't interested in trendy recipes because this is a really big and very expensive book. If people buy it, I want them to be able to use it for the next 20 years. I don't want it to fall out of fashion. This is not a book about fashion. And that was always in my mind, too. What will endure?

Megan: You've had a long career in the food business. Were you surprised by anything that you learned during the course of your research?

O'Neill: I was surprised by how much more sophisticated the center of the country has become. I grew up in Ohio, and I couldn't leave there fast enough. But I could live in Ohio now. I'd have no problem with that. Food there has become so much more sophisticated. It's no longer exclusively urban. And there were places that really surprised me. West Texas really surprised me. McAllen, Texas, is Mexico, and it sheds a whole new light on why there are border difficulties. Some borders are political and have nothing to do with culture and landscape.

I was also surprised by the huge enthusiasm among youth for the wonderful things that we do. Growing and preparing and eating food! Thirty years ago, that was very fringey, and to see that it's become so widespread... It's like what rock 'n' roll was when I was 20, food has become that. And that's really cool.

Megan: Were there books that you looked to for inspiration when you were putting this together?

O'Neill: I edited an anthology called American Food Writing for the Library of America, which came out three years before this. Doing that book was my excuse to read as deeply as possible into American food writing. And keep in mind, I've been reviewing cookbooks for 30 years.

So, there's nothing that I turn to in particular, but I am absolutely guided by a spirit of joy and celebrationI am absolutely guided by a spirit of joy and celebration. In tone, I'm certainly guided more by joyful books than by somber books.

Megan: Being from Minnesota, I was really excited to see the recipe for Mona's pasties.

O'Neill: She's a riot! [Laughter]

Megan: She sounded like it.

O'Neill: Oh, my god! She wears go-go boots, and she's an ex-stripper. She's crazy.

Megan: Oh, wow. That's fantastic. When I saw her pasty recipe, I thought that many of these recipes must symbolize home to a lot of people.

O'Neill: Yeah, I think so.

Megan: Which ones are particularly special to you?

O'Neill: Well, my mother's Christmas cookies. And, when I'm out on the road and can't wait to get home, I think about a really good roast chicken. And I make great granola, so I start to want to get home and have my own granola.

Megan: I really enjoyed the book trailer for your book. Do you have a lot of video footage of your trips?

O'Neill: Oh, yeah. Tons and tons and tons.

Megan: It seems like that would make a pretty great documentary.

O'Neill: Oh, wouldn't that be fun! Your lips to God's ears. I'm trying to make that happen.

Megan: You can take my comments to whoever's in charge.

O'Neill: I will. [Laughter]

Megan: You talk a little bit in the book's introduction about how there's a dichotomy in American cooking, where there's this whole-foods, buy-local renaissance going on, but at the same time there are many people who aren't cooking at all. After doing all this research, what's your outlook on the future of cooking in America?

O'Neill: I think people are going to keep eating dinner, and a lot of them are going to keep cooking it. And I think it's going to get better and better, not worse and worse. Things are looking really good.

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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. One Big Table: A Portrait of... Sale Hardcover $14.98
  2. New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay... Used Trade Paper $3.50
  3. American Food Writing: An Anthology... Used Trade Paper $11.50
  4. Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition
    Used Hardcover $18.00

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