Good Golly, Molly O'Neill
American Food Writing is not a book to be put down lightly. At 784 pages, it simply can't be done. It is a book to be put down with a thunk, picked up and read, put down with a thunk, picked up and read, again and again. The anthology serves up American history via more than 100 concise and distinctive stories concerning food — from Meriwether Lewis's description of how to fry buffalo boudin blanc in bear fat (from The Journals of Lewis and Clark, 1805) to Michael Pollan's "My Organic Industrial Meal" (The Omnivore's Dilemma, 2006).
They were selected by editor and author Molly O'Neill, the New York Times' food columnist for a decade, host of the PBS series Great Food, and cookbook auteur. O'Neill will appear at the Miami Book Fair Saturday, November 10, joining David Kamp (The United States of Arugula) and Laura Shapiro (Julia Child) in a group discussion titled "Why We Eat What We Eat: The Evolution of American Tastes," moderated by food historian and FIU professor Marcel Escoffier.
"We read about 100 pages a week for three years," O'Neill says of producing the latest book. Still, not every writer made the cut. "You're always sad that — I mean even though this is a huge book, there are people I wish that we'd been able to include."
Asked whether any food writers complained about not being selected, O'Neill murmurs an affirmative "mm-hmm" but declines to name one. She is nearly as hesitant to choose a favorite among the book's contributors, but after a pause, concedes that "Judith Moore is probably the greatest food writer of the modern era. She only did two books prior to dying several years ago, but she was an extraordinarily elegant, thoughtful writer."
There are 50 recipes interspersed throughout the book. O'Neill admits to not having tried them all: "Those recipes exist kind of as an icon, and they carry the story forward. It's not a cookbook." And so she can't vouch for the soy-boiled chicken feet? "No, but they sound good, right? That's from Shirley Lim — her writing is terrific."
O'Neill also marvels at the "Meatless Days" essay by Sara Suleri: "It's almost as though there are two kinds of food writing [in the anthology]. One is the food writers who reach deep and move beyond genre writing, and then the literary writers who figure out how to write about food in a way that is universal."
O'Neill hasn't dined in Miami for a number of years, but during her last visit, she was "enthralled with what was happening in the kind of Latino meld. It was so far advanced at that point, beyond New York, that it was really exciting." Her next project will be to complete a book she's been working on for the past 10 years, "a portrait of America at the table — a contemporary version of this anthology, but with real, live people." She's a little short on stories from this neck of the woods, so if you're a real, live person with a good tale concerning Florida food, you might want to catch up with O'Neill at the book fair and let her know.
And so she can't vouch for the soy-boiled chicken feet? "No, but they sound good, right?"
2007 Miami Book Fair International
Contact the author to discuss the story:
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Miami dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.