It was August 3rd of 2014 and my GPS was faltering. I considered turning the car around about a dozen times en route to Molly O’Neill’s house. “Bring what you think you’ll need,” Molly advised. “There’s absolutely nothing up here.” She wasn’t kidding. The tiny hamlet of Rensselaerville, NY boasted a lush forest preserve, a dramatic waterfall at the end of the road, and a night sky dressed in pinks. Precious coffee shops and artisan bakeries however, were an hour away. We were a diverse group of nine; East coasters, Pacific Northwesterners, and one from smack dab in the middle. We had signed on for a month long writing intensive only to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere.
Bookcases groaning under the weight of cookbooks occupied much of the wall space in Molly’s house. The kitchen shelves were stacked a little too high with one-of-a-kind pottery that transported the most mundane bowl of fruit into a still life. For the entire month of August, our breakfast consisted of bowls of Molly’s homemade granola. The blend was generous to a fault with toasty oats, nuts, and dried fruit. We ate it with spoonfuls of what my friend Dakota described as the love child born to whipped cream and yogurt.
Molly was a formidable presence, hair piled high atop her head, generally followed by a parade of dogs in varying degrees of decline. Quick to laugh, yet just as quick to scold, Molly could be your toughest critic and your most fervent cheerleader. The front door of her house welcomed a steady stream of farmers and photographers, chefs, wordsmiths, and neighbors. One weekend featured a cameo appearance from food writer Ben Mims. Following a tutorial on the proper way to write a recipe, we headed into Molly’s kitchen for a green bean casserole cook-off. “Isn’t this fun?” Molly beamed.
Sometimes dinners were held at ‘the Barn,’ a cavernous red structure set down in a farm field dotted with sunflowers. Chef Alicia Walters created the most extraordinary meals in that space; multiple courses boasting fresh and local. Molly had an extraordinary eye for talent and a gift for making introductions.
Our group of nine was dubbed the “Scholars,” scribbling morning pages in Moleskin journals, composing stories late into the night on laptops. We shared bedrooms and bathrooms, confidences and frustrations. Molly pushed us to pen our what ifs and what next. When we weren’t writing we were re-writing.
The summer never really ended because Molly had a way of insisting that something was going to be such fun, and there you were, driving back to Rensselaerville with Dakota to bake dozens of pies for her Longhouse Food Revival. You returned again and again because Molly had a way of drawing you back in.
In 2016, Molly decided to rent Julia Child’s house in the south of France and wouldn’t it be such fun and before you knew it, you were writing morning pages in Julia’s living room and baking apple tarts in Julia’s kitchen. Molly continued to expand my circle of friends and inspiration, but the one thing that was missing was Molly. When Molly admitted to having health issues, it resonated with the knell of a beloved soap opera character stricken with a chronic cough.
I returned to Molly’s home to talk about words and piecrust on several more occasions, sitting on her back porch listening to her tell animated stories against a soundtrack of crickets. Long before I met her, I squirreled away Molly’s columns plucked from the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Times. Re-reading her words I can hear her voice. I am profoundly grateful for the things she taught me and for the people she ushered into my life.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm