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Interview with Molly O'Neill author of One Big Table

"I'd love to take a Culinary Tour of the world...bit by bit, morsel by morsel... connecting, learning, sharing, forming new friendships..."  Do you know who said this?  I did.  Yup.  That's my dream job.  I always thought I could start smaller...while the kids are still young and in school.  Stay in the U.S....visit different regions and talk to the people...immerse myself in their culture for a brief, intense period of time.  Well.  I have yet to be able to do that (call me, Saveur!), but that is EXACTLY what Molly O'Neill, former food columnist for The New York Times, did...for the past decade!  What motivated her?  She was investigating reports that Americans had stopped cooking at home. From planned destinations to once stumbled upon by chance, Ms. O'Neill found herself in the midst of a proud people.  From those whose families have lived here for generations to newly transplanted Americans, the people she met took her into their homes, their communities, their trailers, their cultures, their KITCHENS!  They cooked for her, with her, and around her.  They dusted of old family recipes to share.  Ten years...20,000 contributions...300,000 miles...later, Molly O'Neill brings us One Big Table.  600 recipes, stories from the real people she met, and pieces of gastronomic history, culture, & lore are interspersed with vintage food ads, posters...and plenty of one of my favorite things to read--- food memory!  I think that Ms. O'Neill disproved the theory that Americans don't cook at home anymore.  This big, delicious, glorious melting pot is still bubbling away happily.

Although Ms. O'Neill is very busy promoting One Big Table right now, she was gracious enough to give a bit of her time to answer a few questions I had about the book.  I had a second page of questions, but unfortunately they went unseen...learning time I will put down number of pages.  Just in case the interview seems to lack "closure", that is the reason.  Thanks again, Molly!  Check out my questions...and her responses...
I read somewhere that you were a chef before you went into writing.  Is this true, and if so, do you have a preference for one or the other more…or do you like a combination of both (cooking & writing)?  I ask because I’d love to know a bit more about what inspired or drove you to begin this decade-long journey.

I was a poet and a painter. I started cooking to pay the rent, and I went to school in Paris at La Varenne. Professional writing and professional cooking have a lot in common. Both are adrenaline-driven, deadline work and both require more than is humanly possible. If you are not doing it for a living, cooking can be a meditative experience. The same is true of writing. Both are part of a well-balanced professional diet for me.

I can’t see a connection between the above and my motivation for getting to know America. (Side note from me: I guess I was just trying to understand more about Molly's background...what drove my head, it connected...) But when I finished my first book, The New York Cookbook, I knew then that I wanted to take the same approach to the nation. Perhaps because I like a challenge, or maybe because I am grandiose. Or maybe because I like people and find their stories endlessly fascinating and for me, food is a window into daily life. Of course, my appetite to know America may also be ascribed to the fact that I grew up in Columbus, Ohio—when the city was the test-market capital for new food products in the United States.

When you set out on your quest, did you have any idea of how enormous it would become?  Of how many years it would take to complete?

I knew that the challenge was way big. I underestimated several things, though. I underestimated the complexity of choosing between recipes and stories to find not only the best expression of a moment or place in American culture, but also the right note for the book. I also underestimated how radically cooking and eating in the United Sates would shift within the course of the project.   

How did you decide which towns/cities/regions you would visit?

I was led around by tips and letters and news articles, by word-of-mouth and sometimes by being tired or lost and getting lucky. 

Do you have any favorite places or people that you met on the quest (ones that really stand out)?

I made many new friends—my New Year’s card list has doubled each year over the past few years. I have a bad habit of buying houses and moving into places within hours of pulling into town (at least in my mind). I am, in other words, place-promiscuous. In the past ten years, I've fallen seriously for the Rio Grande Valley, New Orleans, Pass Christian and Greenwood in Mississippi, Chapel Hill, Asheville, Ocracoke and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the area around Walland, Tennessee. I am smitten with the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Granville, Ohio, Chicago, Minneapolis, both Portlands (Maine and Oregon), and Seattle. Not to mention Livingston, Montana and the hills outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Austin, Texas, Stonington, Maine, south Florida, the high plains of south Colorado, the mountains of Utah, and Mobile, Alabama.

How in the world did you keep track of all the recipes submitted and how many did you test yourself? 

I kept folders that matched the chapters in the book and only put in recipes that I knew we would test. I cook from the recipes before and after they are tested. Like most serious cooks, I am constitutionally incapable of following recipes and therefore am not a good test cook. I've had the good fortune to work with remarkable test cooks and recipe editors, and the good sense to let them do their job. Being a control freak, I can't help following them around and retesting things, though.

How did you decide which ones would wind up in the book?

In many different ways. First, there are the dishes that changed the way I looked at an ingredient or a person or a place or a traditional recipe. Then there are the recipes that express particular places that are central to the chapter in the book and to the story of eating in America. In these cases, I looked for the most unusual rendition of a dish, the most delicious but also the most idiosyncratic variation on a well-known theme. And then there were the stories people told—if they added something essential to the understanding of cooking in America, the recipes were a shoo-in. 

Do you have any horror stories from the road?

Fewer from the actual road than the air. I now have a seven-hour rule: If I can drive there in seven hours, I do. Air travel these days has given me a new appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe and makes me wonder if Kafka was not secretly a U.S. citizen who flew a lot.   

Did you find that the average home cook brings meals from the soul…or that they simply cook out of necessity?  Or is there a difference? 

Both are true. Sometimes there is a difference and sometimes there isn't. One of the certainties of cooking in America is that every fact is countered by a diametrically opposed fact that is equally viable and true.

Was there a common thread that ties together all the regional home cooks across the U.S?  Other than the obvious…food?

Americans are optimists. We can't help ourselves. We really and truly believe that the best is yet to come.   

What role does food play in your life?  Do you spend more time in your kitchen or eating out?  Will this change with what you’ve discovered/witnessed while researching and writing One Big Table?

When I am at my house in upstate NY, I cook. When I am in NYC or on the road, I usually eat out. I prefer to cook, but I can't stand the idea that I might miss something really tasty that somebody else is cooking.

photo by Fred Conrad via S&S
So, how 'bout you?  Are you interested in sharing your holiday culinary traditions?  Perhaps some favorite family recipes for the holidays?  Then you are in luck!  On Friday, December 10th, from 4 -6 pm (EST), join in the holiday Twitter party...where people from all over will be joining Molly (@onebigtable) to do just that!  Use the hashtag #onebigtable and be a part of the conversation!  What's even cooler is that a Simon & Schuster will be giving away copies of the book both before and during the party! Don't miss your chance at possibly adding a (free!) copy of this wonderful tome to your culinary library. 

*I received this book free of charge to review from the publisher, but the opinions given in this post are all mine.
This post is part of the Hearth and Soul Hop vol. 26  & Wander Food Wednesday