Excerpts from a 2006 Columbus Monthly story about the acclaimed food writer and Columbus native
Editor’s note: Columbus native Molly O’Neill, whose pioneering food writing earned her international acclaim and inspired a generation of adventurous culinary chroniclers, died on Sunday from cancer. In 2006, Columbus Monthly contributor Dennis Read talked with O’Neill, her mother and two of her five brothers (though not her most famous sibling, Paul, the former New York Yankee) about her Columbus roots and her book, “Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball.” Here are excerpts from that story.
Molly O'Neill, the former New York Times writer, confides, "My family is worried about this book.” She's referring to her memoir that chronicles the crazy, never-a-dull-moment doings of her Beechwold tribe of eight. Not every member favors such public exposure. “I'm an under-the-radar kind of guy," says her oldest brother, Mike O'Neill. Another brother, Robert O'Neill, explains about Mike, “He's like my mom. They're not comfortable with permanent records." Molly's mother, Virginia, is nervous. “I just hope that it doesn't cause family friction," she says. And Paul O'Neill, the former New York Yankees star who attended Brookhaven High School, simply refuses to be heard from. “Paul doesn't do interviews on his own behalf,” says Molly, his only sister. "He certainly won't do one on mine."
The title of O'Neill's book—"Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball"—pays homage to her late father and isn't a comment on the controversy about the genre brought on by James Frey). The senior O'Neill was a masterful storyteller whose tales about his forebears were fascinating and embroidered. Truth existed in them somewhere, but it wasn't always apparent or verifiable.
Molly O'Neill is the oldest of the six children of Charles ("Chick") and Virginia O'Neill. She also is their only girl—a significant detail. The family grew up in Beechwold—first on Schreyer Place and later on Cooke Road—in the 1960s and 1970s. For the first three years of her life, Molly had her parents to herself. Then her brothers—Mike, Pat, Kevin, Robert and Paul—arrived in quick succession, with Molly hoping and praying that each one would be a baby sister. In 1963, when she was 10 years old and her father called from the hospital to say that Paul had been born, she writes that she screamed into the telephone, ‘Well, it better be 'Paul That's All!’ " In fact, it was.
In her book, she describes her father as colorful, irrepressible and buoyant, as well as an inattentive, not to say careless, individualist. He supported the family with his excavating business, digging sewer lines and basements for an ever-expanding Columbus. As Molly tells it, however, maybe “supported" isn't the right word. Chick typically neglected collecting payments for his work and paying his debts.
“Rules didn't apply to him when it came to business," Virginia says in an interview. “He didn't know who owed him money or who he was doing business with. He wanted his children to have things that weren't in his life, and he would buy them things and then we wouldn't have money for the electric bill. April was always a nightmare in my life [because Chick seldom paid his income tax]. It was almost divorce time. I knew I had to go to work to keep a roof over our heads” She was employed for many years as a medical technologist at Mount Carmel Hospital.
Robert O'Neill succinctly states the matter: "My dad thought business should be poetic and not pragmatic."
Virginia (her husband always called her Boots) was born a Gwinn, an established Columbus family that ran a milling company. She is a stylish and refined woman who grew up with expectations of the finer things in life. She graduated from St. Mary of the Springs (now Ohio Dominican University) with intentions of following a career in medicine. Standing a statuesque 6 feet, she bore a resemblance to Katharine Hepburn. When she first saw Chick, Molly writes, she was entranced by “his smile, like Van Johnson's, promising good times and happy endings." When he looked at her, Molly writes, he “saw tall sons, enough for an infield." That was in November 1945. They were married some four years later.
And sports would play a central role in the couple's life. Their sons exhibited excellent athletic skills, with Paul becoming an all-star baseball player who won five World Series titles with the Yankees and Cincinnati Reds. In a chapter titled, "How Little League Saved the O'Neills," Molly writes how every summer her father would drive the family to a jewel of a ballpark in Plain City for the boys to play at. “For these eleven- or twelve-year-old boys," Molly writes, “playing Plain City was like playing Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.”
But not for Molly, who spent her time in the grandstand, rooting for her brothers. The five brothers were "like a fraternity," Mike says. “Molly wasn't in the fraternity. She had other responsibilities."
Many of them, as it turned out, involved cooking. After graduating from Denison University, she worked in a bunch of restaurant kitchens in Massachusetts. She then received professional training at LaVarenne in Paris, became a star chef in Boston, shifted into reviewing restaurants for Newsday and the New York Times, graduated to being the Times food editor and wrote several successful cookbooks.
Along the way she learned about writing from Lillian Hellman and about loyalty and love from Julia Child. But throughout it all she has carried her Columbus origins with her. “We are never really free of where we came from," she says. “It doesn't matter where I live; I write through the scrim of Midwestern morality. The thing that I admire most about Ohio is the remarkable tolerance that exists. It took me years of living in New York City to realize that people there tend to be far more parochial than people in Columbus."
Her brother Robert, by the way, doesn't think any O'Neill should be upset over Molly's spilling the family beans. "As you get older," he says, “you realize that your family's secrets are no worse than any other family's."
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