After traveling for nearly a decade collecting food histories and recipes from all over the United States, Ms O'Neill has distilled this monumental effort down to "600 recipes from the nation's best home cooks, farmers, fishermen, pit-masters, and chefs". It is an epic, yet intimate, snapshot of the what, the how, and the why of American food and cooking.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that one of my non-seafood recipes was chosen for inclusion in One Big Table, an honor that I'm pretty darned proud of, actually. But I can also tell you that this is a deeply engaging and endlessly informative book, filled with the tastes, sights, and stories of America and her people.
There are dozens of wonderful seafood recipes in here, just about every one of which makes me want to jump up and cook. You'll find a wide range of heritage dishes, from Acadian Mussels to Makah Indian Slow-Cooked Salmon to Hush Puppies and Catfish, along with many 'here-by-way-of-there' recipes like Curried Dungeness Crab, Saigon-Biloxi Shrimp, and Monkfish Moqueca. There are also intriguingly unusual recipes like Cinnamon Halibut, Boombastic's Scallops (flavored with grapefruit and capers) and Corned Haddock in Lemon Cream Sauce.
In between, there are enlightening pieces of food history -- what we ate and drank, how we cooked, how some fads became favorites and how some were just forgotten, what abundance we had and what we lost. Peppered throughout are fascinating vintage and modern photos and illustrations that show us the fine details of American food culture as it was and as it is now.
Best of all, every recipe in One Big Table has a name, a provenance, and a story attached to it. Because recipes are more than just lists of ingredients and instructions on a page; they can be historical records, links to people and places we've left behind or to friends and loved ones who have passed. They can be creative, artistic expressions -- both serious and whimsical. They can be gifts from the hands and from the heart.
Similarly, the dishes that result from them give us more than just physical sustenance. These 'edible memories' sustain our recollections of the past and our connections to others. Molly O'Neill's One Big Table captures that idea with its deft interweaving of food history and personal history, and in the process creates a multi-colored, multi-cultural patchwork tablecloth that covers that big, generous, family dinner table known as America.