The Mentor We Miss Most: Molly O’Neill

The writer and chef’s LongHouse Food Scholars Program changed many a writers’ lives—and so did her granola.

By Ellen Gray

Published on October 15, 2020

Six years ago, I attended a foodwriting intensive called the LongHouse Food Scholars Program, founded and led by the formidable chef, journalist, and cookbook author Molly O’Neill. One of nine students selected via a rigorous application process, I arrived at Molly’s brick-fronted residence in the remote hamlet of Rensselaerville, New York, thrilled by the prospect of four weeks ­under her tutelage.

Long before we met face to face, Molly had been an integral part of my Sunday-morning ritual. During the 1990s, when she was a New York Times food columnist, her pieces were the first I’d pluck from the paper. In hindsight, I realize she was teaching me about the craft of food ­writing even then.

Over the course of Molly’s ­storied career, she won three James Beard awards, including one for hosting the PBS series, Great Food. So I and my fellow LongHouse Food Scholars were rightly intimidated by her pedigree. Sleepy-eyed at 8 a.m., we exhausted the French press in Molly’s country kitchen, then wedged ourselves into deep sofas or sat cross-legged on the floor. The creaking of the front door announced the arrival of our mentor, followed by a parade of dogs in varying degrees of decline. Hair piled high atop her head, a vibrant scarf draped around her neck, Molly supplied prompts while we scribbled in Moleskine journals. Quick to laugh and quick to scold, Molly could be your toughest critic and most fervent cheerleader.

Throughout these mornings, a large bowl of Molly’s granola sat on the ­dining-room table alongside a tangle of mismatched silverware. We dotted the fragrant mix of oats, pecans, almonds, and coconut flakes with gemlike berries and dollops of local yogurt. With every spoonful, I analyzed the blend, hoping to someday re-create it.

That month at Molly’s never really ended because she had a gift for drawing everyone she encountered into her next escapade. It was Molly who persuaded me to bake a dizzying number of pies for her annual LongHouse Food Revival weekends, which brought together past participants. Molly is also the reason I spent a week in Provence, baking and writing in Julia Child’s kitchen. All the while, her elusive granola recipe ­continued to haunt me.

Get the recipe for Molly O'Neill's LongHouse Granola »

During one of many conversations circling Why Pie—the cookbook Molly convinced me to write as part of her Little BIG Books project—she finally entrusted me with the formula for those slow-roasted oats. Vague about baking time, she was adamant about turning the mixture frequently. Several attempts and many oats later, success.

It has been a little over a year since Molly’s passing, from cancer at age 66. I think about her often, particularly on Sunday mornings or any other time I assemble her epic granola. Transported back to her dining room in Rensselaerville, I fondly remember analyzing a bowl of oats while scribbling notes on the last page of a Moleskine ­journal.

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