Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed Mallory M. O’Connor, an award-winning author, & John A. O’Connor, a practicing, professional artist and designer who taught art at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Ohio University, Athens, and the University of Florida, Gainesville until his retirement in 2005, about their writing and their recently released book, The Kitchen and the Studio: A Memoir of Food and Art , an amalgam of memoir, art, and food. (Read the review here.)
About the Author: Award-winning author, Mallory M. O’Connor, holds degrees in art, art history and American history from Ohio University. She taught art history at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College for over twenty years. She is the author of two nonfiction books, Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast (1995) and Florida’s American Heritage River: Images from the St. Johns Region (co-authored with Gary Monroe), 2009. Both were published by the University Press of Florida. Following her retirement in 2005, she wrote the American River Trilogy (Tributaries, Currents and Confluence) and also produced a series of paranormal/occult thrillers, Epiphany’s Gift (2019) and Key to Eternity (2020). Mallory lives with her artist husband, John A, O’Connor, Gainesville, Florida.
About the Artist: John A. O’Connor is a practicing, professional artist and designer who taught art at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Ohio University, Athens, and the University of Florida, Gainesville until his retirement in 2005. His service included a number of administrative positions including Director of the Appalachian Center for Crafts and Director of the UF Center for the Arts and Public Policy. In addition, he taught Art Law at the UF College of Law and collaborated with the School of Aerospace, Engineering Science and Mechanics on several projects. He has had thirty-six solo exhibitions of his paintings and his art is in many public and private collections. He is also the author of White Lies Matter: Decoding American Deceptionalism (iUniverse Press, 2020).
The Kitchen and the Studio combines multiple art forms: writing, visual art, and cooking. Did you always know you wanted to combine all three art forms into a memoir, or did one inspire the others? Or was it something else entirely?
I like to say that our book is “a cookbook, an art book, a memoir and a love story.” John and I met at the University of California, Davis, in 1962. We were married in January 1963. From the beginning, we shared a passion for good food and wine that has continued for over sixty years. This book is both a memoir of our life together as artists and teachers and a collection of the celebrations that we shared with family and friends over the years.
A couple of years ago we decided to collaborate on a project that combines two of our favorite topics: a memoir/cookbook focusing on our dual careers as artists and food-lovers. I would write the text and John would illustrate the various recipes with his own original works of art. There was only one problem: when were we going to have the time to take on this truly monumental endeavor? Enter COVID-19. Self-quarantining at home over the past three years gave us the perfect opportunity to work almost nonstop on this beautiful “trip down memory lane.” The book is a true collaboration, fitting together three interests that have been cornerstones in our life: art, food and how these passions came together.
One of the early reviews of the book said, “Mallory M. and John A. O’Connor re-invent the traditional cookbook with The Kitchen and the Studio.”Book Excellence
Another called it “…a highly original presentation of food history and personal memoir.” Literary Titan
Did we mean for it to be a “different” approach to a traditional cookbook? Of course we did! “We never stopped being college sweethearts,” concludes John. “I paint, and she writes and teaches. We love life and each other. Even when we practice our crafts separately, we always come together in the kitchen.”
How did you select certain recipes to include in The Kitchen and the Studio? Were there any recipes that you originally wanted to include, but later decided not to?
I keep journals. But one special diary is different from the others. It contains a record of the celebrations, dinners, brunches, lunches, picnics, and other fetes that have also been part of my life since I met my forever soulmate, John O’Connor, in 1962. I carefully recorded the date, guest list, menu, and beverage selection for each occasion along with many of the recipes that we used. Indeed, one part of the “diary” is devoted to a collection of recipes that has grown considerably over the years. Some are “family” recipes handed down from my mother and grandmother, while others are the result of my research into dishes from a wide variety of places and cultures. These handwritten notes were the basis for the preparation of most of the recipes. And my bulging blue binder served as the inspiration for the book. Each occasion has a story to tell about a special time and place when friends and family came together to celebrate our lives, our loves, and our daily bread. John and I selected what we felt were the most significant celebrations and the menus for the occasion. Then we selected our favorite recipes from each menu. We wanted to focus on “the best of the best.”
With your background in art history, are there any visual artists that have particularly inspired your writing work?
It is amazing how many artists LOVE to eat! The connection between food and art has a long and delicious history. If you look at cave paintings from thousands of years ago, what was the frequent subject? Their FOOD! They didn’t paint pictures of deer and bison because they thought they were cute. That was their FOOD! From that early time the connection between the delicious image and the delicious flavor was established and it’s grown ever since. There are numerous “artist cookbooks” including Monet’s Table, Frida’s Fiestas, The California Artist Cookbook, Salvador Dali’s Les Diners de Gala, and Picasso’s Kitchen. As one artist friend told me, “Live the artist’s life and make your LIFE a work of art.” Artists throughout history have employed their creative talent both as skillful cooks and avid entertainers.
Your writing canon is quite diverse, spanning nonfiction and fiction. What did you learn from writing your first memoir that you hadn’t yet come across in your other writing endeavors?
The earliest “memoir” that I still have is a little tan “diary” that begins in 1953 when I was ten years old. As of the year 2023, I now have nine binders full of “diaries” where I recorded my thoughts, feelings, and adventures throughout the past 70 years. Whether fiction or non-fiction, my writing has always been “autobiographical” in the sense that it came from my own experiences and interests. My first book, Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast, focused on my admiration for our indigenous population and the extent of their creativity and sophistication. Florida’s American Heritage River: Images from the St. Johns Region reflects my love of nature and the artists who have explored the natural world. My American River Trilogy explores my own experiences growing up in Northern California and reflects the rich cultural landscape that included people from all over the world. And my Epiphany Mayall, Psychic Detective series grew out of my research into paranormal phenomena, art theft and environmental problems. So, all of my writing has essentially been “memoir.”
The illustrations in The Kitchen and the Studio were created by your husband, John. What was the process of working with him to produce this book like? Any standout moments or takeaways?
First, here’s what John has to say about his approach to producing the art work: “While I was in graduate school at UC Davis, one of my teachers/mentors was Wayne Thiebaud. Wayne’s probably best known for the wonderful images of pies and cakes and other ‘food art’ that he produced back in the sixties and seventies. I think that Wayne definitely influenced the images that I produced for the cookbook. I wanted to celebrate the beauty of the food as well as the lushness of the colors and textures. I wanted it to look ‘good enough to eat!’”
My contribution to the process was largely one of enthusiastic support: “Wow, hon. That’s GORGEOUS!” We did discuss what should be included in each image such as the setting, the wine, etc. using the journal notes as a prompt. It was a huge job, but it was delicious fun!
Do you have a favorite recipe that you and John created together?
Well, one of my very favorites is John’s wonderful Crab Louie both because it’s so delicious but also because it was what he prepared for me for our first date. Every time we have it for dinner, I remember how I felt that night and how delighted I was to have found someone who shared my passion for art and food and life. I also really love my recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon because it was one of the first things I learned to cook by myself. I was about twelve years old and I wanted to cook something really special for my parents. I already was a big fan of French food. I was taking French lessons from a lady who lived down the street and I asked her what she would recommend for a really special dinner and she said, “Boeuf Bourguignon!” So, I found a recipe in a French magazine and tried it. It turned out to be a great dish and my parents loved it! I’ve been cooking it ever since. John and I enjoy finding dishes that enhanced the Beef Burgundy experience like our Coeur a la Crème dessert. A true labor of love!
What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Kitchen and the Studio?
Back in 1963, not long after John and I were married, he took me to meet two artist friends of his who would have a significant influence on me. William Theo Brown and his partner, Paul Wonner, lived in a lovely house in Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I was enchanted by their beautiful home and the serene surroundings. We had lunch on a terrace overlooking the ocean and dined on the simple but perfectly prepared food that Paul provided: a delicious cheese omelette, fresh greens from the garden, and for dessert a luscious strawberry Bavarian cream.
On our next visit, I asked Bill what career path he thought I should take, and he replied, “Live the artist’s life.” For years I pondered over his advice. What did it mean to “live the artist’s life?” I finally came to realize that there were no written codes, no hard and fast rules. You didn’t have to starve in a garret or drink yourself to death or cut off your ear. You didn’t even have to literally “make art” physically. The art was your life—your values, your outlook, your passions, your point of view. It was the things you cherished, whether they were people or places or ideas.
It had a lot to do with caring—caring about things that touched your soul and stirred your spirit—images, sensations, adventures. It meant searching for what was rare and extraordinary, what lasted and mattered, what nurtured and healed, whether it was beautiful art or a delicious feast. It meant living for something beyond yourself, something grand and gracious that transcended the petty problems and persuasions that distracted you from who you were and why you were here. So, I hope that our book will encourage readers to think about how they too can “live the artist’s life.”
Our book is also about the “idea of food” and our relationship to it. I was fortunate enough to grow up embedded in NATURE. The food that we ate on our little ranch in California’s abundant Central Valley where I spent my childhood was mostly grown by us or by our neighbors. Not as a commodity to sell and make money, but as a communal enterprise that allowed us all to sustain a wonderful, healthy, natural diet that fed us both physically and spiritually. That’s an important message that I hope will help readers look at their own relationship with food, to find out where it comes from and how it was grown. To explore the local farmer’s market, to try their own hand at gardening, to start a community garden. It’s a mistake to take food “for granted.”
What’s next for you?
Well, John’s busy writing a new book in his “White Lies Matter” series that combines digital art works with biting political and social commentary. I’m looking forward to getting back to work on Book 4 of my paranormal series, and we’re excited about working on our new brand as “Two Cats in the Kitchen.” We’ll be exploring some purrfectly delicious new recipes! Stay tuned…
Categories: BookView Review Interview
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