More than the food

Molly O'Neill came to Cleveland for dinner. She and a friend showed up at my house looking like refugees from a Dead tour—furniture and overflowing clothes stuffed into the back of the car. She was slightly giddy it seemed, manic from the starbucks and too much time on the road. We'd never met; I'd only known her as a byline in the NYTimes where she worked for many years before leaving to work on books.

Last winter an editor at Scribner I'd recently met sent me O'Neill's book called Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball asking for a blurb. (See more on blurbs below.) I loved it. She's a cornfed Ohio girl, so I've always felt a sympathy with her, and the memoir, which mainly focuses on her family (she's the oldest of six kids, her youngest brother being Paul, who played for the Yankees) and her work, but food is in the background, appropriately so, given the nature of this memoir.

This was a week and a half ago, she was in downstate Ohio flogging her book, and had wanted to see Farmer Jones—she'd been meaning to write about it, this unique grower, for ages, a great story in her home state, and then, lo, a story by Amanda H appeared in the daily Times, which pissed her off—and the amazing produce at the Jones family's Chefs Garden near the lake coast. (My first time there had been a few months earlier, joining a group led by Charlie Trotter who wanted Ferran Adria to see it—I tasted, among other things, garlic roots, and they were fantastic.) Flattered by my blurb, no doubt, and aware of my work, O'Neill had called wanting to meet and suggested we somehow get together since she'd be less than an hour away.

So that's how Molly O'Neill came to be standing in my kitchen.

And I'm writing about it here because it was an amazing thing for me, personally. I had begun to write about food, in an amateurish way (as food writers almost invariably begin) at exactly the time she'd begun writing her column in The NYTimes magazine, early 1990s. I loved her style, her interests, her generosity. I was at the time, an anonymous schmo in Cleveland Heights who only wanted to write books (food was one of numerous subjects I wrote about then). Molly somehow seemed beyond the august Times, seemed to write ultimately out of a personal love of her subject; this quality describes the overarching spirit of her work; for her, food was a way to get at the bigger things, and that ultimately was why writing about food mattered to me too.

It was exactly at that time that I began writing about food and cooking, cooking with chefs, who on a national level were just beginning to get famous in larger numbers (Emeril Live was still a few years off, Thomas Keller was out of work and broke), and reading Molly O'Neill's columns—even doing some of the recipes: I still remember rolling chicken breasts around prosciutto and poaching them in tomato water (excellent), and artichoke gnocchi (an epic disaster in my cooking-from-recipes experience, a waste of artichokes a waste of time, an abomination of my own making…I forgot to ask her about this). At any rate, I was imprinted, if thats how you say it, in the early 1990s on Molly ONeill. And now, fifteen years later, I was like a chick following around a completely different species in my own kitchen absolutely convinced we were related.

Molly turned out to be funny and smart, and she struck me also as mischievous. She was quick on her feet and I could see that she could be an operator in nyc (in a positive networking shrewd and savvy way), but there was also this huge sweetness and generosity about her, which no doubt comes from the same place that informs her best writing.

We went out to dinner and talked shop, mainly, about our books, about how we make our living, about our annoyance with Bill Buford's book Heat (not the book itself, I hear it's terrific; Molly's gripes were political/feminist, mine were and are simply focused on how well it seems to be selling relative to mine, in other words the abject jealousy attending another writer's fame and money ((I cant bring myself to read the book just yet—a writer impersonating a line cook, that's my territory! (((honestly, I froth at the mouth when I see it ((((how the hell is he getting all that press, the bastard!)))))))))), and about the difference between professional cheffing and amateur cooking and how vastly more important amateur cooking is. She was adamant about this point and I know she's right.

Molly is involved in a colossal project called One Big Table, a gigantic cookbook of American pot luck cooking that is also an event. "I've been collecting recipes and food stories for nearly a decade," she wrote this morning from home when I asked for a clarification on a few points of this unusual deal, "and in addition to culling them from my foodie pals, I have for the past couple years been giving potlucks across America to collect recipes for my project—and raise money for America's Second Harvest, the nation's food bank network. I'm currently gearing up to take to the road in an Airstream that, in my mind, resembles a covered dish. So I can drive it to any potluck anywhere." This book to be published next year will have 750 recipes (a huge number, btw, for a cookbook), but will be more than just food and recipes; I imagine it will be a kind of American self-portrait.

She and her friend had to head back immediately after dinner to Columbus because her dog was on death's doorstep down there. But I felt really happy and really lucky that night, and I began hatching a plan to visit her at her home in upstate new york. Often you meet someone who was hero to you at an important time and they turn out to be an asshole. But Molly exceeded even what I'd hoped for, what I'd thought in my best-case scenario. But her columns always had that effect, too.

One thought on “More than the food

  1. dude, you’re crazy! Your book is getting reviewed all over the place! I see it in bookstores here in Atlanta and stare at it longingly.

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