Written by
Five Questions
October 2009
Written by
Five Questions
October 2009

Writer Molly O’Neill may be best known for her food writing in the New York Times, where she worked for many years. She has also written a memoir (Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball) and stories for The New Yorker and Saveur, and edited the anthology American Food Writing. Her new book, One Big Table (Simon and Schuster, 2010), is a national cookbook of anthropological proportions. She traveled around the country talking to people about their food and the culture around of their dinner tables. O’Neill recently spoke to my food journalism class at the Harvard Extension School. She also took time to talk to me about being a writer. Below are edited portions of our conversation.
—Alicia Anstead

Q: When you first entered the food industry, it was primarily a male domain. You tell a very funny story about having to prove yourself by shucking oysters. In your memoir and other places, you’ve characterized the scene as one in which you had to fight to get respect in male settings. As a writer, have you felt any of those same pressures?
A: I felt a different kind of pressure. The restaurant industry was a male world when I started working in kitchens. They were a particular macho, teamster kind of guy with their own code of honor. In media, it’s much more subtle. The ageism in media is far more pronounced if you’re a woman. You are given far less of a leeway to resist editing, to be self assigning, to be autonomous. That has changed dramatically. In the food field – once food became discovered – the large names were white men. I’m sort of glad I had already moved through the time of making a name because it would have been astonishing for me as a young person.
Q: The reason you stopped working at restaurants was to become a writer. You started with hard news, then food writing, then a cookbook, a memoir and the history of the American culinary experience. Your next book, One Big Table, is a national community cookbook. How were the transitions between those writing styles?
A: Painful! It’s really very difficult to feel like you’ve mastered one form, or gotten it as good as you’re going to get it. For me, as soon as I’ve done that, I’m bored with it. I want to do something else. But you really get slotted as a particular kind of writer, and it’s difficult to break out. I’m beset by self doubt, and I never know if I’ve made the right decision. It’s part of what keeps me scared and hungry and able to sit with a text or an idea exhaustively. I wish I didn’t need all of that sturm und drang, but I do. I wish I were the kind of writer who got up and wrote the same thing every day. But I never have been.
Q: You have been in the food writing field for a long time. What do you notice about food writing today?
A: One is that the blog world has really taken over as the entry level, and everyone thinks they are knowledgeable because everybody eats. Now that it’s cool to be food knowledgeable, people want to be food knowledgeable—or at least present themselves that way. There has been a great deal of mistaking half-baked opinions for knowledge or authority. What this generation is doing is writing attitude and opinion. And those are very limited. It’s a shaky foundation to build a career on. It will interesting to see how people use that and grow around that. But I think we’ve lost a sense of informed leadership, and that means we are gaining a naïve consumer. That said, we’re also gaining a generation of people who know so much more than I did in my 20s. And they have so many years to develop. No matter how hard you push it, no matter how many years you spend in France doing assistantships and studying, you learn food over decades. What you’re building is both a taste memory and a sense of social and cultural movement. You have to have ridden a few of those waves to get past the “gee-golly-gosh I’m the first person who ever invented this or knew this” or “let me share this wonderful new thing with you.” Not very much is new. You have to experience for a while before you can mitigate and understand what is real artistry and what is a new way of looking at the world or an ingredient or a meal. As this generation of younger bloggers comes of age 20 years from now, the ones who stick with it and make it are going to be really, really interesting because they’ve had a longer time of awareness. I look forward to that. Also, there’s a lot of trouble in newspapers and magazines and because the business is so down, there’s no room to do serious, artful work. Everything is service. Everything is “look at me” and “read me” and “buy me.” That’s a tremendous generalization but there is an ethos that’s quite different from very plush times. This is the third downturn I’ve seen in the years I’ve done this. When advertising dries up, editors get really frightened and everyone makes conservative decisions and all the magazines start to look alike. Everybody is doing protective journalism, not explorational or educational or let-me-show-you-the-world journalism. We’re in one of those cycles right now. I worry about that. Also food rides a different kind of wave. We go through educational food writing waves, and then celebrational waves, then hey-look-at-me-aren’t-I-cool food writing. We’re between waves right now.
Q: You’ve had to be both an artist and an entrepreneur. Can you share a strategy for how you’ve kept yourself out there in the world of writing?
A: It really helps when you have a monthly or weekly perch. Nothing beats constant exposure. I don’t do a lot of the social stuff people do in my field. So I’m not out there in that way. I do try to contribute in mentoring younger people and through a couple of organizations and groups of people doing really interesting work. And I write. The best way to keep your name out there is to just do the work. That sounds more glib than I mean it because it’s hard to get your name out there right now. But writers write. I worry when I’m on a long book project. I always try to do some freelance magazine stuff, and it’s always horrible because I want to be able to do the shorter form, I want to be able to knock something out. When I’m deeply immersed in one line of inquiry that’s going to be 150,000 words long, I can’t put it down and pick up something else and give it the best I’ve got. It’s very hard. When I’m deeply involved in a piece, I disappear. Then I publish something, and I come back. It’s different every single time. I’m starting to think we think too much about how to make it, and the fact is, we just have to get up every day and do our writing and be as smart as we can about our friendships and about having supportive people around us. And giving back in some way. I was interviewing a very brilliant woman some time ago, and I expect her to be a voice we’ll hear from – at least I did until she said, “I’m worried about my brand.” She’s not even 30. She was telling me about her brand. She was not telling me who she was, but about how who she was could be modified to fit into a particular place on a bookshelf. I just think that’s a wrong-headed way to go about it. You’re tilting at windmills, and you’re not going to be happy. You have to express what is important to you, and you have to trust – no matter how brutal it is, and it is really brutal out there – that you will find an audience. If you don’t – well, let’s not go there.
Q: Your book coming out next year is called One Big Table, and if we look at an earlier book of yours, American Food Writing, we know who sits at that table in our history. But I wonder, because you’re such a literary writer, that if we speak of Molly O’Neill’s One Big Literary Table, who would be there – who has inspired or influenced or delighted you?
A: Good grief. That’s a hard one because it’s always the person I’m reading at the time. So Elizabeth Strout would be there, because I’m so full of admiration for Olive Kitteridge. I’ve learned a lot from William Kennedy. Also Lewis Hyde, who wrote The Gift [Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World]. That was an astonishing book. And there’s a novel called Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom that has really stuck with me. It’s one of the most haunting books I’ve read in years. I’d really like to be sitting with him right now. I’d like to be eating Iranian food with Geraldine Brooks because of her Nine Parts of Desire [The Hidden World of Islamic Women]. And Seamus. Seamus Heaney, the poet. I read one of his poems every week, to sit with it. It shapes me.

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  • cs manegold

    Hey ho, Molly-- Wish I knew you were in Boston... when you were in Boston... I'll look for the book.
    cs manegold