Top | The Culinate Interview

Molly O'Neill

(article, Nancy Rommelmann)

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p(blue). Molly O’Neill’s first book, [%amazonProductLink "New York Cookbook" asin=089480698X], grew out of her years as a restaurant critic and columnist for the New York Times. Mixing history, culture, geography, and nano-narrative about hundreds of New Yorkers, the book was as vital as the city itself, bursting with a panoply of cultures, characters, and flavors. (And I challenge anyone to make a better cheesecake than Sarah Challinor Smith’s, whose recipe is on page 435.) 

p(blue). O’Neill could have stopped with that work alone. Instead, with a brief pause for a memoir (Mostly True), she set her sights on America — all of it. Ten years and 300,000 miles in the making, One Big Table is not, despite its more than 600 recipes, just a cookbook. It's a chronicle of how the country was built, by whom, and how it continues to evolve. Reading it is like sitting at a table with thousands of people, exchanging stories over many meals.

p(blue). “I knew when I was leaving the New York Times, I was less interested in what distinguished us than with what we have in common,” says O’Neill, from her home in upstate New York. “I still am.”

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Pretend we are doing this interview over lunch at your house: What are we eating?
On a snowy day in upstate New York, Peruvian white beans and kale. I’ve been making this raw kale salad that is rocking my world. Also, probably a little roast chicken. But in reality, I just got back from being on the road and looked in my fridge for what I could make: nothing. There’s not a chicken in sight. Well, there was a carcass.

You tackled New York before the United States. Was the city more exotic than the rest of the country? 
It was in its time, and I approached it as though there were nothing more complex. And then an amazing thing happened. The immigration bill of 1965 changed a lot in the United States; we began to get immigrants who were not from Europe. We had a lot of resettlement here after the Vietnam War and other atrocities — but not, as in the past, to larger cities. We began seeing this huge and fascinating diversity in places like Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up.

I couldn’t leave Columbus fast enough for New York; I was sure that was where life was. In high school, we had one black kid, and two Jewish kids, a brother and a sister. I just spent a week in Columbus, and ate the best Mexican food I have had anywhere in the country, and the best Pakistani food. There was also regional food from Iran, from Somalia. This sort of serious diversity has really come to fruition in the last five years. We’ve gone from a melting pot to a tossed salad. The arriving populations are no longer as keen to assimilate as they are to distinguish themselves.

How did you go about finding the people and the recipes for One Big Table?
When I started the book, I was very assiduous to follow an ethnic and geographical grid, making sure I had everything covered. When I finished, I had this perfectly boring book. I was more than a little freaked out. The problem was, the spirit of what I’d discovered was missing. 

Rather than follow things along ethnic and geographic lines, I needed to follow self-chosen communities that shared a passion — African-American artists, utopian communities, right-wing communities that believe growing one’s own food is part of their anti-government practice. I started following people who cared about food for love and passion and art. Then the demography took care of itself.

The book is packed with history and ideas and the people behind them, and it seems clear you are a writer and a researcher who chooses food as her field of investigation, rather than a “food writer.”
I appreciate you saying that. I am sick of being put in the little girls’ ghetto. The way you have to sell food books is, you go on TV and do the chop-and-talk. I went to cooking school; I can chop-and-talk with the best of them. But I see myself as an observer, and food is the window through which I look. It’s more about art and poetry than typing for dollars.

One Big Table works literally and metaphorically. Did you know that was the book’s title right away?
No, I didn’t. I was having lunch with the late Barbara Tropp; she owned the restaurant China Moon in San Francisco and was a real force, the Asian Alice Waters. I was telling her, the book is about what we share, all of us together, and she said, “Like one big table.” I knew that was the title the second she said it.
At 864 pages, the book seems to put the kibosh on the idea that Americans no longer cook from scratch. Still, were you offered many recipes where the base was a can of soup?
Oh, a whole lot. I did a year of potlucks to raise money for local food banks. I was very heavy into canned soup-land. Some were beyond hideous; I don’t even know where to start. The worst may have been King Ranch Casserole. King Ranch is the largest ranch in the country, and if there’s one dish that has given birth to really egregious food, it’s King Ranch Casserole, which is tortillas and chicken and cream of mushroom soup and processed cheese and rice — it’s just glop. 

But this was not half as bad as people “being gourmet” with molecular cuisine. “Oh, you have to have this!” they’d say, and it would be gelatin stuffed with olive oil; it looked like a fish eye. In Charleston, South Carolina, I had bacon cotton candy. I would rather eat King Ranch Casserole. I am positive civilization does not need bacon cotton candy to move forward.

Another strand of “do we really need this?” are foods too precious in their perfection, i.e., $8 bunches of organic arugula tied with little piece of twine.
It’s the new Puritanism, and it’s a pleasure-buster. I think we definitely need to get off this jag that has to do with farm-to-table. There are limits to glorifying dirt. We need it, sure, but it is not the end. It’s not that I disagree with good food choices being great at every level, but the sanctimony, oh!

I’ll tell you a story. I was part of an IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) event in downtown New York last week. It was 8:45 in the morning, and there was no coffee; you had the speakers basically walking into walls. The organizer asked a girl working the event, “Where can I get these people some coffee?” And she said, “If you walk two blocks that way, then four blocks the other, and nine to the east . . .” I finally said, “Isn’t there a Starbucks around the corner?” The girl just looked at me. “I would think,” she said, “that food leaders would care enough to go to a local artisan roaster.” I said, “Yeah, you would think so. But right now, I just want a cup of coffee.”

Which recipes for the book blew your mind?
One was this fideo from a street vendor in San Francisco — so simple and so delicious. It’s a really, really beautiful Mexican noodle soup, so fresh and clean and wonderful.

Another one that blew my mind was Holly Lane’s best cookie. I’d been given the recipe and thought it looked horrendous, as though you walked down the baking aisle in the supermarket, grabbed one of everything, and made a cookie. I threw the recipe away. A few years later, I was at my brother’s house in Ohio, and I ate this amazing cookie. I was freaking, saying, “Oh my God, I have to get this recipe,” and he says, “You have the recipe, but you are far too good for the recipe, because it has Heath Bar chips and cornflakes in it.” And it does, and a lot of other stuff; it’s basically a chocolate-chip cookie with oatmeal and cornflakes and coconut, and it’s one of the very best.

I recently read that Frank Bruni, no longer obliged to try everything as restaurant critic for the New York Times, eats the same things over and over. Now that you are no longer trying the more than 5,000 dishes you ate while doing research, what do you eat?
I am like any other American, in that I have five or six meals I rotate. I roast a chicken once a week. I love to roast carrots in a cast-iron skillet with smoked paprika and olive oil. About once a month, I do a beef thing, like two-day-long braised short ribs with 14 bottles of red wine. And I cook some sort of seafood once a week, though where I am upstate, it’s tough to source. Rensselaerville is halfway between Boston and New York City. We found this kid who sources seafood for restaurants in both places, and a bunch of us here meet him at one of the exits off I-87 and then split a whole salmon. 


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For your next book, do you go smaller or larger — My Little Toaster or Our Culinary Universe and Beyond?
I’m more into electronic publishing than books right now, though books do work for certain things. I’m hoping to create a line of books out of One Big Table. I used less than 25 percent of the recipes I collected.

And still, if someone broke into your house and you hit him in the head with the book?
He’d be dead — the book weighs five and a half pounds. It’s ridiculous. Anyway, I am finding cultural institutions where they can use some of the scholarship that’s gone into the book to make smaller books, perhaps chronicling the Asian diaspora, the Mexican diaspora that is coming together as we speak. I think there’s some TV something to be had with the book. And I am doing some big events with the artist Eric Fischl, a sort of moving museum. 

And did you know we launched this book at Ellis Island? We used food to frame immigration. It was phenomenal. 

p(bio). Nancy Rommelmann’s debut novel, The Bad Mother, was released in March.

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