"Shortly after the Yankees won game three, my father died."
This might seem like a strange way to mark the passing of one's own father, but if you've read to this point - the culmination of O'Neill's memoir - it makes perfect sense. Mostly True is a work that opens with baseball, closes with food and mixes in liberal doses of both. But it's a work, more than anything else, that's about family.
It's a cozy family at first - just the author and her mismatched parents. There's her blue collar father, the once promising minor league baseball player and her mother, the overly fastidious would be social climber who's frustrated with her station in life.
Then come the brothers, five in all. O'Neill calls them "Bongos" after a gorilla in the local zoo. Though she fervently wishes for a sister (who never comes), cross gender sibling rivalry seems not to have been much of an issue in the O'Neill household, perhaps in part due to the author's senior status.
Of course, along with all of the family and baseball there are plenty of reminiscences about food. Some of the earliest are of O'Neill watching her mother bake pies and clandestine visits to the ice cream parlor with her father. There's also an old school granny whose mission in life is to pack pounds on people and who "was deeply suspicious of any woman who had never chopped the head off of a chicken."
One of O'Neill's first significant experiences in restaurant dining - a subject she would one day become intimately familiar with - was at the ritzy Jai Lai Restaurant in hometown Columbus, Ohio. The "test-market capital of the United States for food products", Columbus was Middle America and then some. But, as O'Neill recalls, "my parents did not believe in mixing food together and baking it under crusts of crumbled Ritz crackers, cornflakes, or Velveeta cheese."
Because of this parental aversion to lowbrow cuisine, O'Neill began to take a keen interest in "Bettys", the crisp, professional women who demonstrated food products at the local grocery store. It also helps explains why she and her brothers took to eating comfort food on the sly - "while other children smoked cigarettes and made prank phone calls, my brothers and I sat down to the sorts of dinners that other people ate."
One of O'Neill's formative restaurant industry experiences came at a tender age when she entered the employ of the 4 Winds Restaurant at the local Hospitality Motor Inn. Others included a college romance with a vinegar-making anarchist and a stint adapting dishes to the politically motivated whims of a group of ardent feminists who ran a vegetarian cafe in Boston.
From there it was on to a true trial by fire in a Cape Cod Italian restaurant and then to a different kind of boot camp, a stint in Paris learning from a grumpy traditionalist. Then back to the States to another Italian restaurant, this time as chef.
O'Neill, who became friends with one-time neighbor Julia Child, eventually began to move into food writing and took on a job at New York's Newsday. She dined on the clock with whichever of her salt of the earth brothers might be in town and also with a cross dressing friend who adopted various personas, depending on the restaurant.
O'Neill eventually moved up to writing for the New York Times and youngest Bongo Paul, the family's great hope, moved from his spot with the Cincinnati Reds to play for the New York Yankees.
As his life began to fade, the patriarch of the O'Neill clan traveled to New York for an operation that didn't turn out so well. Much of the last month of his life was spent in a coma, with his only daughter at his bedside. Paul soon retired, after twenty years with the Yanks, and the tale winds up with family - a gathering at brother Pat's house, where there's plenty of food and the kids challenge the adults to a game of - what else?
William I. Lengeman III is a food writer, book reviewer and publisher of Tea Guy Speaks.
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