To author, Big Apple would be flavorless without right recipes

HAPPY EATER

April 04, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Molly O'Neill is a fan of cities. She lives and works in the big one, New York.

Her "New York Cookbook" (Workman, $18) contains some 450 recipes ranging from the favorite dishes sent in by neighborhood cooks to the signature dishes of suave restaurant chefs.

But her interests go well beyond recipes. She also looks at how food and eateries are a part of urban life. For her, a neighborhood bakery, like Orwasher's on the Upper East Side, gives the community more than loaves of raisin pumpernickel. With its late hours, such a bakery is a neighborhood's "keeper of the night." Moreover, a bakery is a weather barometer, marking the change of season with a change of breads.

In addition to uncovering the secret of New York chicken soup -- cooks from Asia, Africa and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn admit to adding a quarter of a bouillon cube and a -- of chicken base -- she also sees social good in the debate over who makes the

best soup. "Sharing a taste for chicken soup is as close as the city comes to communion," she wrote.

And when at the end of a difficult day the city sups, Molly O'Neill hears a "communal sigh of relief."

I talked to her recently over lunch in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Hotel, where she was signing books in the city's Book and Cook festival. She calls herself a "reformed shy person." She struck me as more scholarly than shy. Her jeans and sweater and blazer and her history-laden sentences reminded me of the manner of a 40-year-old professor, full of life and full of facts.

The restaurant overlooked a city park. The sun was shining. The dessert, a warm caramelized banana tart that the Rittenhouse chef had whipped up following the recipe in her cookbook, was inviting. It was a good day in urban America.

And after listening to Molly O'Neill talk, this urban dweller felt revived. Despite crime and crumbling infrastructure, I got the feeling things look good for cities, at least on the food front.

As new waves of immigrants wash over the cities, she said, new foods arrive.

For instance, the popularity of the kebabs and roasted chicken dishes of the Pakistanis in New York have enabled them to quickly make the jump from selling their food on street carts to selling it in restaurants. Historians say it usually takes two generations to get enough money to make such a move, she said.

Pakistanis have moved faster, in about half of a generation, she said, because their food meets most of the needs of modern-day eaters. It is flavorful, modestly priced, easy to carry, and has the "appearance of being healthy." Moreover, to prepare the dishes they don't need giant kitchens. So a new group hits, and a new food hits the stomach.

Molly O'Neill grew up in Columbus, Ohio. She was the older sister to five baseball-playing brothers. "In a neighborhood where most children grew up Lutheran or Methodist," she wrote once, "we grew up Baseball." The youngest brother, Paul, plays for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team and, according to his sister, "is a good cook."

Although her mother, a biochemist, prepared most of the family meals, Molly also cooked at home. Her brothers, she reported, loved her "baloney pizza." She pursued her interest in cooking, and after studying at LaVarenne in Paris, she was a chef at several New England restaurants. She then turned to food writing. She moved to New York nine years ago, worked as a restaurant critic for New York Newsday and in 1989 joined the New York Times, where she is now a reporter and food columnist.

She dedicated her book to Stanley W. Dry, her ex-husband and a writer for Food & Wine magazine. She credits him with encouraging her to try her hand at food writing and with pushing her to complete the book.

She said one of the things writing the book taught her was that a big city is really a collection of smaller communities.

"We live in our own small towns," she said, and offered a story to illustrate her point.

A few days ago she took an ABC television crew on a "food walk," visiting the stores in her Manhattan neighborhood.

She picked up a jar of pesto and proclaimed it "the best pesto sauce" in the city. What, the crew asked, made this sauce better than the others?

The answer, she said, had little to do with the list of ingredients, and everything to do with a sense of place. "It was the best," she said, "because it was sold within a few blocks of my house."

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