Book showcases Americans 'cooking their hearts out'

March 30, 2011 

Molly O'Neill, an award-winning food writer and former New York Times magazine columnist, is on tour to promote her latest book, "One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking."

O’Neill spent a decade working on this almost-900-page tome devoted to regional American cuisine. She put 300,000 miles on her Saab while criss-crossing the country collecting recipes from home cooks, farmers, fishermen and chefs.

Last week, O’Neill took some time to talk about her research and whether anybody cooks at home these days. These are edited excerpts from that conversation:

How did you gather these recipes?

The first thing I did was make an alliance with what was then called America’s Second Harvest, the nation’s food bank network, which created potluck dinners to end hunger. People would bring a recipe, a covered dish and a donation to their local food bank. I met people and gathered recipes.

Then I gave some events and dinners and lunches and things like that in farmers markets. And then I worked with various ethnic clubs, gourmet clubs, specialty ingredient clubs, groups of food lovers. I would hear about these groups and then send out a letter saying, “Here’s what I’m doing and does anyone want to participate?” As time went on, I also used the Internet. But mostly it was face-to-face gathering.

I heard you gathered 10,000 recipes for this book?

Only about 5,000 of them were serious contenders. Of those, it was fairly easy to sift through duplicates and ones that were original. I tried as much as possible not to use recipes that had convenience food in them so that it was really scratch cooking. Once you separate that out, it really came down to about 2,000 recipes that were fabulous.

I read that this book also was to combat the idea that nobody cooks anymore. Is that true?

That came up along the way. It was just so weird to keep reading these reports of “Nobody’s cooking. Nobody’s cooking.” And I’m out there with people are who cooking every day. That’s not where I started. It was certainly something I thought about a lot as time went on. You would see these people cooking their hearts out and think: Who says people aren’t cooking? It’s mostly, I think, food companies who do these studies that no one cooks anymore. Then you think: Then why are there grocery stores? If no one is cooking, why do people want recipes? And they do. Why are they buying cookbooks? And they do. So I don’t know the answer. I know somebody is out there cooking. I cooked with a lot of them.

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