Monday Interview: Molly O’Neill

Molly O'Neill

Last Friday morning, I received a call from an acquaintance, saying, “Molly O’Neill is in town; do you think you have time to interview her?” I said, I’ll make time, and in fact, will crawl with O’Neill’s New York Cookbook in my teeth for a chance to meet her.

“Oh, we need to go to Powell’s and get you a new copy,” said O’Neill, seeing the spatters and stains and missing pages on the 1992 classic, written when she was food columnist for the New York Times Magazine. “And a copy of the new book,” Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food and Baseball, which was released last week, and which O’Neill was gracious enough to discuss on-the-fly.
I’m assuming the “mostly true” had nothing to do with James Frey.
Ah! We had titled this book before anything happened with James Frey, and the title Mostly True, is taken from a realization that I had about my father. I grew up in a family almost between two Americas. My mother was from a big, old, Mid-western family that came over on the Mayflower; very reserved. My father was a minor league baseball player who came off a dairy farm in Nebraska. They were an unlikely couple.

How did they meet?

It’s funny. My great-great-grandfather played for one of the first organized traveling teams in baseball, in Nebraska. Then my great-grandfather was a barnstormer, and then my father played in the minor leagues. He had a paratrooping accident [in WWII] and was looking around for plan B, because his pitching arm was ruined. He went to work for his older brother, who managed a mill in Columbus, Ohio, a mill that was one of my mother’s family’s businesses. One night the mill caught on fire, and my father saw my mother on the other side of the fire. She’s six-feet tall, and he had just had one thought: ‘Tall sons—and I’ll get enough of them for an infield.’ He didn’t know that her family ran the mill.

My mother wanted to marry out of her class; that’s all she wanted; she had decided that ‘nice’ is much more important than money, and my father is a lot of things, but he is nice. He had the smile that just kind of promised happy endings… they met that same night, and they eventually got married. I came first, and they were told they couldn’t have other children, and then after three years, bang-bang-bang, she started having all these boys, they came out really fast; I had five brothers in, I think, a seven-year period.

No wonder you learned how to cook.
I learned how to cook so I could control them. My mother was really pretentious, very… she ironed the sheets everyday; she set the table with silver; it was totally ridiculous.

She’d wanted to marry out of her class…
And yet she needed to maintain it. They had no money and she was trying to maintain this image that we were ‘to the manor born,’ and here are these five crazy boys. [Note: One of those boys grew up to be Paul O’Neill, New York Yankee great and five-time All-Star and World Series winner.] She would only let us have griddled pork chops and all this very ornate, healthy, high-class food. She thought that casseroles were just like child abuse, and my father thought that fast-food and junk-food were a Communist plot, so of course all my brothers and I wanted to do was eat like everybody else in Columbus, Ohio. We wanted macaroni and cheese, and we weren’t allowed to have it. So I would go to the grocery store with my father or mother on Saturday and learn how to cook from the women who did recipe demonstrations—Vienna sausages, Velveeta, things like that, and when my parents went out for the night, I would make these back-of-the-box gourmet extravaganzas. And my brothers adored me; they adored me! I was a goddess; they followed me around; I had total control over them and I continued to try to have total control over everybody in my world by cooking for them for the rest of my life.

Seeing as you were food columnist at the New York Times for more than a decade [O’Neill currently writes for the New Yorker], I’d say your plan sort of worked.
It sort of worked. It became a life. Eventually, you have to give it up, but it did become a life. I went right from cooking junk food, when I was fifteen, to deciding—though I had no weight problem whatsoever at that point—that I was fat because I didn’t have kneecaps like my brothers. So I went to Weight Watchers, and the woman running my group’s name was Kitty, and she was very perky and blonde and vacuous; she was everything my mother is not; my mother is six-feet tall, very serious, very stylish, very elegant, and this woman Kitty was bouncing around and chirping and she was cooking her way through Julia Child and adapting the recipes for Weight Watchers, and I did it with her, and pretty soon I’m making crustless quiche and huge soufflés that of course my brothers really liked. And then when I was in college, I got into hippie food, and they thought that was really interesting; I was always making and eating better food than they were getting from my mother, so it was this great kind of Elektra exercise.

[Then] I was a chef for ten years; at that time, it was so easy, because they didn’t really hire women; it was really blue-collar work in those days, and there weren’t a lot of people who’d graduated from college to kitchens. For me, it was really easy because I was used to bossing around men; I made their lives easier. At that time I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, so I could read all the tickets at eleven o’clock at night and I could get us out of the restaurant much earlier, so these huge men just said, ‘Run the kitchen, please, run it!’ I had moved to the East Coast right after college, I was cooking at a restaurant at that time in Providence; the same restaurant Anthony Bourdain writes about [in Kitchen Confidential], and it was exactly as he wrote about it, and I was this prissy little feminist who wanted clean living.

From there I went to cooking school in France [at La Varenne], and then someone said, ‘Have you ever thought of writing about food?’ I had cooked to support [myself]; I was a poet and a painter, and the cooking was this second thing, and so I thought, no, I hadn’t ever thought of that, and then, why not? So I wrote a story about pancakes, and it was just, at the time, there were very few people who could cook and write and so I was just really lucky. I knew, from restaurants, how to work really, really hard, and I just brought that same habit to the writing, and I moved very quickly from Boston Magazine to New York Newsday to the New York Times, and I was really lucky along the way.

You make your own luck.
We’ll see.

I’d like to pay homage to New York Cookbook, which is such a triumph. I’m from New York, so I know that reading it is exactly like walking through the city and meeting its people; like popping your head into people’s apartments and having them say, ‘Here, have a piece of cheesecake!’ or a knish or some brisket. We get to know these people and the recipes are just fantastic. [O’Neill also has two other cookbooks, A Well-Seasoned Appetite and The Pleasure of Your Company, each a compilation of her New York Times essays.] Now, you’re moving in the direction that a lot of journalists do, which is writing less about other people, and more about yourself.
I had to do that. I had been standing outside my own life looking in, and so it was really hard to put myself in my own book. My editor kept saying, ‘You know, you’re going to have to be in your book, Molly; this is a memoir.’ And I just was so resistant; I was incredibly resistant, and it was really painful to do, because I would prefer to make everything okay, all the time, and I don’t want… I prefer to live around certain things; I didn’t want to go through them, and I had created a persona for myself that worked, very well, and to begin to dismantle that and look at what was underneath it was really, really difficult.

Did you find you wrote early drafts and then went back and actually did some of the real work?
I finished this book two and a half years ago, and then I realized… I talked to my editor at Scriber and it just wasn’t there yet; it was a draft and I get to go back and do it all over again, but neither one of us knew what that meant. And what it meant to me was that, I just had to switch desks, leave my research [and journalism], and go and sit down and start writing, and not worry about anything except trying to get the emotional truth. And so the Mostly True plays on that, too. My father was this very charismatic guy who told these outlandish stories, and by the time I was four years old, I was thinking, yeah, right. I got to spend the last month of his life with him, and as he was dying, what I realized is, everything my father told me, the specifics might not exactly check out, but he was right; what he told me about who I was, who he was, who our family was and what the world is about, were mostly true; the details weren’t always accurate, but the essential truth was infallible… As I was working on this book, I was constantly pulled between my father’s fabulist and my mother, who’s far more legalistic; to her, the truth is observable fact. What I found is that the facts are often not the truth. That was kind of my lesson in doing this.

How’s the reaction from your family been? I’m in the midst of writing a memoir, and early readers are already saying, ‘If you write that, it’s going to really hurt so-and-so.’
Fasten your seatbelt. I sent manuscripts to each one of my brothers and my mother, a year ago, with a packet of Post-Its and a pen, and told them to mark any page that they disagreed with, that they found inaccurate, that they had difficulty with. My mother and one brother read the book. The rest of them called and went nuts, and what I realized was, they were projecting their own worst fears, but they hadn’t read it. They would say things like, ‘Oh, I don’t think you should have so-and-so smoking dope in the book, he has kids,’ and I knew that so-and-so was not smoking dope [in the book], but I finally said, ‘Oh, you’re right, I’ll get that right out.’ Then it was fine. It was never there, but they all projected the secrets we should keep.

And your mother and the brother that did read it?
They had little tiny things. I had made some mistakes. My brother Robert said, ‘You have to make it clear that dad enlisted; that he wasn’t drafted.’ I had misspelled somebody’s name, which I do all the time; I’m the world’s worst speller. My mother was really good about catching stuff like that. She was disturbed because a couple of my brothers were so disturbed, but she wasn’t disturbed on her own behalf at all. She felt like I had done a really good job managing difficult material, [and] was really willing for me to have my own story, which I think is really the measure of a successful parent, and it’s taken her many decades to get there, and she’s there; she’s totally there.

Tell me about the other book you’ve been working on for ten years.
I’m working on a book about a portrait of America at the table; it’s called One Big Table. It’s the New York Cookbook writ large, and I’m going around America doing potluck dinners to end hunger and collecting recipes, and collecting recipes in any way that I know and hoping that people give recipes. It’s very exciting; it’s really neat to be out there. And this is just a little thing I made. [Slides across the table a small spiral-bound recipe book called, One Girl’s Life, Bite by Bite.] I’m just giving it to friends.

You’ve made my day. My week. Thank you.

Thank you.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. pollo elastico says

    I didn’t realize her brother was Paul O’Neill, who, although I hate the Yankees, I respected because he was a hardass and was a yeoman out there in the outfield. Sounds like his sister has a lot of the same qualities – I’ll have to check out her book, it’s right up my alley. Thx once again for the interview…

  2. says

    This is a great interview. Because it feels so natural, like we are having a conversation with her too. I like very much that she says some real things; hard ideas and stories which we all share on some level.

    I miss her in the NYT so much but I guess it’s time to pick up her book…

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