Molly O’Neill’s Epic Road Trip to Discover the Heart of America’s Food Culture

Food writer Molly O'Neill talks about America's food culture and traditions, and the cross-country road trip she took to find the best recipes in the country for her book, "One Big Table."

Award-winning food writer Molly O’Neill’s America eats everything from Persian Noodle Soup to Armenian Rice with Vermicelli to George Chew’s justifiably famous ribs.

O’Neill spent 10 years exploring the best American home cooking and compiled her findings in an 864-page tour de force entitled: “One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking: 600 Recipes from the Nation’s Best Home Cooks, Farmers, Fishermen, Pit-Masters, and Chefs.”

“I don’t seem to know how to write small books,” O’Neill says. Her expansive regional reference book “The New York Cookbook,” published in 1992 established her reputation as an informed storyteller with an eye for detail.

O’Neill’s New York Times newspaper columns and other cookbooks, “A Well-Seasoned Appetite” and “The Pleasure of Your Company,” along with her memoir “Mostly True” are must-reads in American food journalism.

O’Neill set out to gather information for “One Big Table” in the early 1990s. She started her journey with a series of potlucks around the country benefiting Feeding America (then called America’s Second Harvest).

Guests were asked to bring a dish, a recipe and donation for the local food bank.  She judged thousands of recipes. Out of the 12,000 recipes she collected, only one recipe made it into the final version of the book.
She says she went home, felt like she’d collected clear information, and wrote the book.  She couldn’t turn it into her publisher.  “It was not good,” she says.  Recipes alone, without the people who carry them and cook them, cannot tell the story of a nation, she discovered.

She went back on the road in her 1999 Saab station wagon with her bearded collie, Tootsie Roll, in the back seat. She asked people about the origin of their recipes. They led her, she says, to a cousin’s uncle’s brother who had the best turkeys or truffles or sausage or beans.

“You have to be out there talking to the people in little ethnic grocery stores who can lead you to the homes of the best cooks. You don’t find this food in the public.” 

She visited New England clambakes and Southern church suppers. She found unique subcultures including the Vietnamese community of New Orleans, Lebanese families in Louisville and a system of black visionary artists around the nation.
Sculptor Lonnie Holley of Harpersville, Alabama taught O’Neill how to make jambalaya. 

“I learned to cook by inhaling and sweating, listening and being hungry,” Holley told O’Neill. “You pull a little of this and a little of that and you build, just like you do a building, a sculpture, an installation, a painting. You build layers.”

O’Neill covered 300,000 miles and collected 10,000 recipes.  “The personal is political,” she says. She said food and the politics of food form a connection that over ten years and many miles became increasingly sacred to her.

“Even if people can’t agree on anything, they agree that they want to eat dinner.”

The final leg of O’Neill’s journey was her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.  Her mother took her on an ethnic food journey including the best tacos in Columbus.  “When I went back to Columbus, Ohio, I went back to the New York City I moved to 30 years ago,” she says.

“When I started writing about food in the 1980s, you went to France to learn how to cook. Reagan was in office and American cuisine was precious and self-conscious.” She says she now stuffs her bags with spices and other ingredients from ethnic markets in Columbus to take back with her to New York. “You simply cannot get these ingredients in New York,” she says. 

She discovered that a population shift had happened: Not just on the East Coast or West Coast, not just in the cities, but in the middle of the country.

The romantic idea that hidden pockets of the country have some of the best food turns out to be true, she says.  The cities are no longer the best places to find great ethnic home cooking. Today, food is found in suburban homes in the middle of the country near cities where churches have sponsored Vietnamese, Pakistani, Somali and other recent immigrant groups.

“Why do I know that I am in America? We are an extremely open people,” she says.  We are not, as a nation, interested in becoming a melting pot of food cultures. We hold onto our American foods but we believe they can be improved.”

“We deeply believe as a culture that the best is yet to come,” she says.