Molly O'Neill, the celebrated writer and food critic, died on Sunday, June 16, at the age of 66.
“In 1977, it was still possible to learn how to run a little restaurant by opening one," Molly O’Neill wrote, “and that’s exactly what we did.”
That year, O’Neill, a recent college graduate and the only girl born into a Columbus, Ohio family of baseball fanatics, opened the “Ain’t I a Wommon Club” in Northampton, Massachusetts: “a women’s restaurant that served nonviolent cuisine.”
The forward-thinking club had a sliding scale menu and no waitstaff, O’Neill explained in her 2006 memoir, Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball, as well as “childcare (for any boys and girls under the age of two, and for women of any age) and had a sunporch where dogs could stay while their mistresses dined.”
Next, O’Neill studied cooking in Paris, then returned to the US to work in Boston. Her neighbor in Boston was Divine, the actor and drag queen featured in so many of John Waters’ films, who was then working on Polyester. Divine called her Julia, O'Neill recalled in Mostly True, and on their nights off, they would make gazpacho and foil-wrapped seafood for dinner together.
From there, O’Neill headed to New York City, where she eventually began writing for The New York Times, in the Sunday magazine and the Style section. Inspired by the city, O’Neill published The New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay to Park Avenue, Firehouses to Four-Star Restaurants in 1992. It featured more than 500 local recipes and included brownies from actress Katharine Hepburn, who lived in a townhouse on East 49th Street. In the same year, The New York Cookbook won both a James Beard Award and the Julia Child Cookbook Award.
Then came A Well Seasoned Appetite: Recipes from an American Kitchen and The Pleasure of Your Company: How to Give a Dinner Party Without Losing Your Mind, published in 1995 and 1997, respectively. In 2006, O’Neill published her memoir, Mostly True, about her childhood and her journey towards food, which began with an imaginary friend, a mermaid named Karen. It was Karen who inspired O’Neill’s father to teach his daughter how to catch fish and shrimp.
In 2007, O’Neill published her seminal work, American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes, which covers 250 years of the country’s food history, and features early culinary musings from Herman Melville, M.F.K. Fisher, and Langston Hughes, to name a few. This was followed by O'Neill's cross-country road trip that inspired One Big Table, a 600-recipe tome focused entirely on American home cooking.
In her later years, O’Neill moved upstate to Rensselaerville, New York, and taught cooking classes from her home. She also spent time mentoring budding food writers.
“Settle into your writing chair with your notebook and pen, set your timer for ten minutes, and imagine a mountain of dry, rusty leaves,” O’Neill wrote on her blog, cookNscribble, where she also offered online courses.
“Imagine diving into that pile, the detritus of summer past, the soil of gardens to come. Every time you write, you dive, headlong, into the unknown. This morning, you are diving into the leaves, feeling them against your hands and face, tangled in your hair. You are smelling them, rolling in them, being foolish and young in them and writing down every sensation, every image, every thought you have. When the timer goes off, brush off and leap boldly into your day.”
Even when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, O’Neill wanted to write about it. “I am writing the book of my life,” she declared on a dedicated GoFundMe crowdfunding page, of the book that would have been called Liver: A Love Story.
The page itself, set up for Molly by the writer Anne Lamott, is a testament to the incredible reach of O’Neill’s work. “Molly O'Neill changed my life with her Coveted, French and Now in Tennessee article about Tom Michaels and his truffle venture, just over the hill from where I grew up,” one commenter wrote on the GoFundMe page just four months ago. “I was living in France at the time and realized that everything was happening in my backyard, so I high-tailed it back home and have lived a life linked to truffles ever since. I love her zest for life, and her compilation One Big Table and all that [it] represents.”