Molly O’Neill and Food: the Straight Q&A

Molly O'Neill will appear at the Miami Book Fair tomorrow, November 10, at 1:30 p.m. Her book, American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, cooks up a look at America’s history via over 100 concise and distinctive stories concerning food. O’Neill, the New York Times food columnist for a decade and host of the PBS series Great Food, talked with New Times:

NT: Just how much food writing did you have to read in order to compose this book?

MO: We read about 100 pages a week, for three years.

NT: After it was published, did you say, “Omigod, I forgot so and so? “

MO: Not forget, buy 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.

NT: How come you didn’t include any of your own work?

MO: Well I have the introduction and all of the connective tissue. It would have seemed kind of piggish to put in more of my own writing.

NT: Any food writers complain to you about not being selected?

MO: Um-hmm.

NT: Care to name any?

MO: No. (laughs)

NT: If a reader doesn’t want to buy the anthology, but just wants to stand in the aisle of a bookstore and read a single story, which one would you recommend?

MO: Judith Moore’s Adultery is about as good as it gets. But gosh, everything in there is as good as it gets for what it is.

NT: Do you have a favorite food writer?

MO: I guess I think 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. She never became a caricature of herself, and never created writing that existed only as an adjunct to advertising. She really bore witness with her writing and I’m a huge admirer of that.

NT: There are 50 recipes in the book. Have you tried them all?

MO: No, those recipes exist kind of as an icon and they carry the story forward. It’s not a cookbook.

NT: So you can’t vouch for the soy-boiled chicken feet?

MO: No, but they sound good, right? That’s from Shirley (Geok-lin Lin) -- her writing is terrific. And the Meatless Days story by Sara Suleri, I thought that was amazing as well. It’s almost as though there are two different kinds of writing. One is the food writers who really reach inside themselves and move beyond the genre writing, and then the literary writers who figure out how to write about food in a way that is universal. It’s like each one is traveling in a different direction, and when they meet it’s really cool.

NT: As a restaurant reviewer, I wonder: How do you see restaurant reviewing in relation to food writing?

MO: It’s service writing. It’s not literary writing. I did it for a few years. One can dress it up, but the weight of delivering service and criticism is so huge, and the space is so small, that it’s very very rare that somebody can actually create literature out of restaurant writing.

NT: Have you been to and dined in Miami?

MO: Oh yes, but not in a number of years -- so I’m not up to date at all.

NT: What did you think?

MO: I 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.

NT: What’s your next project?

MO: I’ve been working for the past ten years on a portrait of America at the table -- a contemporary version of this anthology, but with real live people. I need help getting recipes down there in Florida. Want to be my legs?

“Sure”, I said nonchalantly. I’m not certain what this entails, but being Molly O’Neill’s legs can’t be a bad thing. --Lee Klein

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