Molly O’Neill is the former food columnist for The New York Times Magazine and was the host of the PBS series Great Food. She is the author, most recently, of One Big Table, a portrait of America and its cooks told through more 600 regional recipes; and the editor of the Library of America’s anthology American Food Writing.
In this recording from the 2011 Key West Literary Seminar, O’Neill begins by saying “Every food story is a family story; and every family story is also a story of place; and every place is a story of food; and so it goes: the circle of life.” Her story reveals, among other things, a history of mid-century American marketing through the lens of Columbus, Ohio, her hometown and “the test-market capital of the United States” for food manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1970s. A bellwether for the nation in all but three presidential elections, O’Neill reports, Columbus was prized by food manufacturers for being “the epitome of average.”
O’Neill goes on to discuss her coming of age as a professional chef and, eventually, a food writer, as she details the changing landscape of food in America. O’Neill’s talk concludes with the words of visionary artist Lonnie Holley, whose recipe for jambalaya is included in O’Neill’s One Big Table:
I learned to cook by inhaling and sweating, listening and being hungry. Gumbo or jambalaya is the sort of thing you grab from the air. … You pull a little of this and a little of that and you build, just like you do a building, a sculputre, an installation, a painting.. … You just stay out of the way and the food moves through you.”
From KWLS 2011: The Hungry Muse