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A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Homa Movafaghi. The error has been corrected below.

Molly O'Neill curates a vibrant hodgepodge of American cooking in 'One Big Table'

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By Jane Black
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:40 AM

A lot of good cooks will tell you they learned their craft by watching their mother bake pies, or maybe on a trip to France where they tasted the roast chicken that changed everything. George Chew's story is different. "I loved to eat. And when I didn't have any money, it was a problem."

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Chew, a federal immigration judge in New York, now has the disposable income to satisfy his appetite and eat out if he wants. But on most nights, you'll still find him in his kitchen. (And no wonder. The space, complete with a six-burner range, is larger than many respectable Manhattan apartments.) On weeknights, he cooks for his wife and daughter. For Thanksgiving, he caters for as many as 60 people. Last year, for Chinese New Year, chef David Waltuck, who owned the legendary Chanterelle restaurant, was his prep cook.

It's often said that Americans don't cook anymore, especially in New York. But a new collection of recipes from passionate amateurs shows that once again the conventional wisdom is terribly flawed. In "One Big Table" (Simon & Schuster), writer Molly O'Neill has gathered more than 600 recipes from farmers, new immigrants, fishermen and passionate hobbyists such as Chew. The 800-plus-page tome skips from Persian New Year soup from an Arlington school administrator to braised monkfish tails from a Brazilian immigrant on Martha's Vineyard to what O'Neill calls Judge George Chew's Justifiably Famous Ribs.

"What is 'fact' comes from ad agencies and PR people," O'Neill says. "They say people don't cook. But they do. Cooking has changed, but it has not gone away."

O'Neill set off to write "One Big Table" 10 years ago. Until then, she had been a food columnist for the New York Times. She had traveled often for her reporting. But she began to doubt that showing up in a town for one or two days could help her accurately reflect what was going on in American kitchens.

"You dive-bomb into places and you capture a certain scene. Then you're gone," she said. "The only way to do it right was to get out there."

Creating a portrait of American cooking is no small task. Where to begin? O'Neill decided to set up a series of potluck dinners that would benefit the hunger-relief charity Feeding America (then called America's Second Harvest). Guests were asked to bring a dish, a recipe and a donation for the local food bank. Some of the recipes she collected at the dinners are in the book, including Chew's ribs. But more important, the potlucks led O'Neill to cooks who knew other cooks.

Over several years, O'Neill traveled constantly. She visited ethnic enclaves: Vietnamese communities in New Orleans and Lebanese families in Louisville. She toured the country by cultural group, dropping in on Southern church suppers and New England clambakes. She also ferreted out what she describes as subcultures, such as African American visionary artists.

One of those was Lonnie Holley of Harpersville, Ala., who taught her his way of making jambalaya. Born in 1950, the seventh of 27 children, he spent time in the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children before running away to New Orleans and finding a series of jobs in restaurants. "I learned to cook by inhaling and sweating, listening and being hungry," Holley told O'Neill. "You pull a little of this and a little of that and you build, just like you do a building, a sculpture, an installation, a painting. You build layers."

The result of O'Neill's research is a remarkable collection of recipes and life stories that is utterly unlike the usual all-in-one cookbook. "One Big Table" is a glorious hodgepodge of classic American dishes - lobster rolls, zucchini casserole and Boston baked beans - and newer additions to the country's repertoire such as Vietnamese pho, Lebanese date cookies, tzatziki and curried crab. It's an extensive, well-curated, old-media version of popular Web sites such as Food 52 that put their faith in the wisdom and skill of everyday cooks.

For O'Neill, one of the book's most important themes is the continued impact of immigration on the American table. The book's kickoff at Ellis Island on Nov. 11 will include a panel on cooking and immigration and a dinner for 500 in the great hall.

As always, O'Neill says, cooks use the dishes of their native lands to remind their children and grandchildren where they came from. Homa Movafaghi, a public school administrator who has lived in the Washington area for more than 30 years, makes ash-e reshteh, a soup filled with herbs, saffron and noodles. Back home, the soup is made mostly around the new-year holiday in the spring. But Movafaghi makes it as soon as the weather turns cold. "It is a soul food," Movafaghi said in an interview. "It is for sharing with family and friends and to show love."


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