Ten years ago, Molly O’Neill set off in her 1999 Saab station wagon, her bearded collies Oliver Wendell Woofer and Tootsie Roll in the Hay at her side, on a quest to discover what’s cooking in America’s kitchens. The celebrated author and former New York Times food columnist tells the story of her remarkable food odyssey in the just released “One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking,” an 864-page tome filled with 600 recipes, vintage photography and the stories of the people O’Neill met who live and love through the food they prepare for their family and friends.
Peeking into their pantries and sharing suppers with Americans from all walks of life, O’Neill discovered that American home cooking is evolving in unexpected and exciting ways.
An immature culture coming into its own
“We are a young culture in search of its cuisine,” says O’Neill. Just as we think we have a handle on our culinary identity, fresh waves of immigrants arrive to give American food new depth and dimension. Adding another layer to the current dynamism is the impressively high “food IQ” of today’s 20-something generation, she says.
“Americans truly believe that the best is yet to come,” she says. “We are far more open to change than other cultures I’ve experienced. I love that about who we are.”
O’Neill took a big trip around a big country so it’s a big book. “I’m kind of grandiose,” she says. “I don’t seem to know how to write small books.” In her sweeping regional reference book “The New York Cookbook” published in 1992, O’Neill’s established her reputation as a storyteller with an eye for detail. O’Neill’s newspaper columns and other cookbooks, “A Well-Seasoned Appetite” and “The Pleasure of Your Company,” along with her memoir “Mostly True” are must-reads in the canon of American food journalism.
Talking from her Saab wagon — the odometer reads 175,760 miles; she flew and then rented cars for trips west of the Mississippi — O’Neill says the death of the American home cook has been greatly exaggerated. There are exciting local food scenes in places as different as Portland, Maine; central Ohio; rural North Carolina; and the mountains of Montana.
Amazing ethnic food can be found in the suburbs
The romantic notion that geographically and culturally isolated corners of the country can be treasure troves of home cooking turns out to be true, she says. But the cities are no longer the best places to find great ethnic home cooking. Today, that food is found in suburban homes in the middle of country near cities where churches have sponsored Vietnamese, Pakistani, Somali and other recent immigrant groups.
“This is a huge shift,” O’Neill says, “and difficult to report. You have to be out there talking to the people in little ethnic grocery stores who can lead you to the homes of the best cooks. You don’t find this food in the public.”
O’Neill includes a recipe from Columbia Heights, Minn., for Somali sambusas, the fried pastry pockets filled with beef and onion that Muslims crave at the end of the day during Ramadan when they break their daily fasts. A cook in Madison, Wis., shares a recipe for Cambodian pot-au-feu.
“I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough to get to New York for great food,” says O’Neill. Today, she shops in Columbus’ ethnic markets for ingredients she greedily stuffs in her bag to take back to her kitchen in New York City.
“We are moving away from parsimony to generosity, even effusiveness in American kitchens,” she says. “When I started writing about food [in the 1980s] you went to France to learn how to cook. Reagan was in office and American cuisine was precious and self-conscious.” Thankfully, Mediterranean cuisine loosened things up. “Today, more and more people shop for ingredients that look good to them and decide later what they will cook. We have added Asian influences to our tables.”
That does not make us a culinary melting pot, says O’Neill. And that’s a good thing. While we have an effect on the foods that are transplanted to our kitchens, Americans cherish the authenticity of these cuisines and make them part of our ever-expanding food culture.
Will the food enthusiasts win?
Culinary curiosity is not yet universal in America, O’Neill says. For every self-confident improvisational cook she met in her travels, there were plenty of literalists still cowed by recipes and overwhelmed by new ingredients.
It remains an open question, she says, whether today’s precocious food enthusiasts will remain free of America’s judgmental past. Hyper-food awareness can turn into a food fetish that is indistinguishable from an eating disorder. (Vegans: O’Neill is talking to you.)
In “One Big Table,” however, O’Neill steers clear of any finger wagging or pontificating. She serves her stories in easy to chew one- and two-page bites be it the classic recipe for deviled eggs from Kansas City, instructions for making Louisiana red beans and rice or the history of Massachusetts clambakes.
Americans don’t have to cook to eat, says O’Neill. So when they take the time to prepare food for family and friends, they are sharing the tastes familiar to wherever they call home. That’s the definition of American cuisine.
Does it sound unforgivably schmaltzy to say that food is enabling Americans to reach across cultural divides at a time when the country seems ready to split apart at the political seams?
Not to O’Neill.
Photos, from top:
Molly O’Neill with Charlie Shackleton in Woodstock, Vt. [recipe, pg. 10-11]: Credit: ©Rebecca Busselle. From “One Big Table” by Molly O’Neill. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The cover of O’Neill’s latest book.