About ten years ago, three-time James Beard Award winner and food writer Molly O’Neill embarked on a 500,000-mile journey across the United States to explore our country’s culinary landscape. After gathering thousands of recipes, she whittled the collection down to a choice six hundred, which went on to populate her latest tome,
One Big Table. The cookbook paints a portrait of America’s food that’s just as diverse as its citizenry, proving that we don’t inhabit a melting pot, but a place where assorted culinary traditions co-exist and thrive.
When O’Neill dropped by for yesterday’s Beard on Books, we asked her to share her thoughts on the culinary state of the union.
In your book’s introduction, you write that when cooks felt conflicted about what recipe to submit to you, you would ask, “Which recipe embodies your life and your own personal America? If you could leave one recipe to your family, which would it be?” We would like to ask you that same question.
I might say sole meunière: it is the first dish I learned how to make perfectly, the first dish I understood by smell, touch, the sound of the butter browning in the pan. I learned to make it before we understood that out national wild fisheries were dying. In retrospect, it feels very precious.
Then again, I might say one of my mother's Christmas cookies; these were such a ritual in our home. Her very short, very delicate cookie was emblematic of a certain sort of American elegance.
Or I might say tarte Tatin, which is weird because I‘m no baker. But I make a mean upside-down apple pie. That dish connects my past (my mother being the world’s best pastry maker) and the dawn of my adult life (cooking school in Paris). It is the most requested of any recipe I've ever published.
How has this project influenced your own cooking?
I'm more interested in big hunks of meat and slow cooking than I was ten years ago. But I think that most of the country is, so I am not sure whether that is about the project or about the times.
What areas of the country are producing particularly great food? Where would you want to return?
The Midwest, hands down. It is the most radically altered good landscape in the country. I just got back from a week in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where I ate the best Japanese meal of my life. I’ve had better Thai and Pakistani food there than I've had in either Los Angeles or New York, as well as the great locally made OYO Vodka from Middle West Spirits
and remarkable ice cream from Jeni's
. (You can get a recipe for Jeni's dirt road ice cream here.
What did you learn about American cooking that you weren’t expecting? What surprised you as you met with such a diverse set of cooks?
I was surprised to find that there is as much great food as there is terrible food in this country. I was surprised to find so many hidden corners of the country, areas that are traditionally cut off geographically, economically, or culturally, and how deeply this isolation preserves traditional cooking and good cooking.
The single most exciting change among ethnic cooks is that there is no longer a great push to "melt" and become part of the great American stew. Instead there’s a great urgency about preserving and celebrating immigrant cooking styles.
Are there any dishes that you think deserve more recognition as a representation of classic American food? Is there something more American than apple pie?
I expect to hear a lot more about kimchi dogs and gyro-style pork tacos.
If there is a One Big Table, Version II in 50 years, how do you think it might be different?
My crystal ball is in the dishwasher. I'll have to get back to you on that.