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America’s Cornucopia of Recipes

November 25, 2010 at 6:58 PM EDT
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Food columnist and cookbook author Molly O'Neill has spent the past decade traveling cross-country in search of America's recipes. Jeffrey Brown talks to O'Neill about the result of her travels: a cookbook.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, on this Thanksgiving holiday, what better time to think about the huge variety of food, recipes and cultures that comprise American cuisine?

Jeffrey Brown has just that in mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: You could make a meal of it, and what a meal.

From Biloxi, Mississippi, Molly Nguyen’s (ph) Vietnamese shrimp pancakes, from Berkeley, California, Cathy Farly’s (ph) grilled figs, from Provincetown, Massachusetts, Angela Albalar’s (ph) Portuguese kale soup, from Mt. Ida, Arkansas, Maureen Walter’s (ph) southern squash casserole, from San Angela, Texas, Francis Butler’s (ph) tamale stuffed turkey. And for dessert, Faye Peterson’s (ph) blue ribbon apple pie from, of course, Apple Valley, Minnesota.

These recipes, plus hundreds more from all over the country can be found in the new book, “One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking” by Molly O’Neill, the former food columnist for the “New York Times Magazine.”

What does that mean, Molly? What were you after?

MOLLY O’NEILL, author, “ONE BIG TABLE”: I was trying to create the feeling and spirit and reality of this hugely diverse country that we have and how millions of different private lives come together around the table.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you didn’t just collect recipes to do that, you traveled the country. You talked to lots and lots of real people?

MOLLY O’NEILL: I did. I spent about 10 years on the road, crisscrossing the nation. I tried to go to a lot of sort of off the grid places, and spent a lot of time collecting oral histories and food stories as well as recipes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, give me an example of someone who perhaps knocked your socks is off, either personality or food-wise?

MOLLY O’NEILL: One of the most wonderful moments that I had was one in Alabama with a visionary artist, named Lonny Holly (ph). And Lonny was talking to me about how he learned to make gumbo. He had been in an orphanage as a very young child, ran away, went to New Orleans, and when he was 11 or 12, talked himself into getting a job in a restaurant. And he learned how to cook there.

And by learning how to cook, he learned that he was an artist.

And it was something so moving as he was making his gumbo and talking about these parallel tracks of making a gumbo and making art.

And that’s was a real epiphany for me. It showed me Americans are making more than dinner when they’re making dinner, they’re making a life. They’re a piece of their lives to share with other people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, it’s interesting because you’re doing this in what some think of as the age of the celebrity cook, right, or the celebrity chef. These people are decidedly not celebrities.

MOLLY O’NEILL: There are a few celebrities in this book, but most of these people are the glorious American amateur, they’re every day people who spend a lot of time figuring out how to make a beautiful meal, and celebrate their place and their family, and their own personality, by what they cooked.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, a lot of people worry these days about a more homogenous — homogenized culture. You know, we traveled to different cities and we get off the plane and we see the same stores and a lot of the same chain restaurants.

Are you — are you making case in this book that there is still a real diversity out is there and it can be accessed through cooking?

MOLLY O’NEILL: There’s actually more diversity today than there was 10 years ago when I started this. The diversity has changed in America.

It’s gone from the inner urban areas to the suburban areas — from the sort of classic melting pot to the tossed salad, where they’re separate was equal parts. And I saw a lot of that in the Midwest and in unexpected places.

In my home town of Columbus, Ohio, I went shopping at a Vietnamese grocery for ingredients to bring back to New York City.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, another thing that people worry a lot about, of course, is the idea that most Americans don’t cook at all, or we just heat up take-out food. Now, is that true in your experience or what are you seeing out there?

MOLLY O’NEILL: Well, contrary to popular belief, there are still kitchens in private homes and there’s still grocery stores, and people still eat dinner.

I think we cook in different ways. I think our cooking has become more recreational. I think that people tend to cook on the weekends and make a few different dishes that they can eat off of during the week. I think we supplement with prepared food.

But there are still people who really want to take control of their dinner and really like to hang out in the kitchen and make something to eat, sit down, talk, eat, have fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a line in your introduction that really jumped out at me. You said, “When cooks” — these are the people out in the county you met — “when cooks were conflicted about which recipes to offer to this project, I often said to them, which recipe embodies your life and times and your own personal America.” Now, that’s asking a lot of people through their recipe.

MOLLY O’NEILL: It is asking a lot of people. And sometimes, it would stump people. And then I would say, well, look here. If you could only give your daughter one recipe, what would it be? Or if your grandchild only learned one thing in the kitchen from you, what would that be?

That would bring people closer and closer to the one recipe that really expressed their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Now, speaking of recipes, what about Thanksgiving? What does Molly MOLLY O’NEILL: do for Thanksgiving?

MOLLY O’NEILL: Oh gosh! I do something different every year. Last year, I deep-fried my first turkey. And I was so afraid of all of the reports I read about everything that could go wrong, I looked like I was in a (INAUDIBLE) uniform. I had on a coat and a hat and it was snowing, and a big apron and huge gloves. And it was the greatest turkey. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was.

I tend to get my turkeys from Frank Reece (ph) out in Kansas, who has been saving heritage birds. And they’re very different cooking birds than the modern bird. You have to cook them slowly. I wasn’t sure how it would work in a deep fryer, but I plan to do it again.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you do something different every year. I mean, that’s interesting, especially because you’re sort of — you’re talking to people about their traditions and the way they cook for their family. But your case, you try something different.

MOLLY O’NEILL: Well, I’m a compulsive cook. But there are always a few things that stay the same. My pumpkin pie is always the same, and I always make one celery stuffing and one oyster dressing. So, no matter you I cook the turkey, the things around it tends to stay the same.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, when you add all this up that you’ve got in this book, is there finally such a thing as American cooking and in this American portrait that you’re trying to build. What do you end up with?

MOLLY O’NEILL: I think we’re a nation in search of a cuisine. And I think that we’re getting closer and closer, and we’re really only very, very young compared to some of the other great cuisines in the world. I think we’re getting there, and I think that what’s happening in food today is taking us there quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Your book is “One Big Table.” Nice talking to you, Happy holidays.

MOLLY O’NEILL: You, too.