Mary Jo McMillin knew she wanted to work in a commercial kitchen. She wrote letters to professionals in the industry, hoping the words would sing her passion for cooking and thereby move each reader.
The year was 1984.
One wrote a letter back to McMillin.
Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House in Ireland, invited McMillin to visit the country house and toil in the kitchen.
“I washed lettuce, rolled pie crust,” recalls McMillin, 77, a native of rural western Colorado and a resident of Wilmette since 2008. “I later [in 1985-86, three months each year] worked at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. I knew it was the right place for me. I could feel it in my soul. Ballymaloe is in the middle of a farm. The people there are real.
“Myrtle,” she adds, “responded to my letter. She became my mentor. She changed my life.”
Writing and cooking.
Cooking and writing.
Both continue to play vital roles in McMillin’s life. She has written one book (Mary Jo’s Cuisine, Orange Frazer Press, 2007) about cooking. She named the cookbook after the French country restaurant she owned and operated in the college town of Oxford, Ohio, from 1986-2004. The book is more than a cookbook; it’s also filled with behind-the-scenes vignettes. It contains dashes of stories about her staff and dollops of passages about the staples to success (equipment, consistency, organization, etc.) under the roof of a stirring restaurant.
“Constant hustle,” McMillin says of her chef/restaurateur life. “Running a restaurant was like putting on a show in a theater.”
McMillin has written another book (The Njombe Road, Glass Lyre Press, LLC, 2017) in which the main character is, in essence, her writing — specifically, the 200-plus aerograms she typed to her parents while living and teaching (in 1963-64) in East and West Africa with her Colorado State College beau and first husband, the late Robert Wendel. Mary Jo and Bob were 10,000 miles away from Colorado as accepted applicants in Teachers for East Africa, a program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development. The couple taught courses at a government boarding school for boys in Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
An aerogram is a two-sided, single-spaced letter. McMillin’s aerograms describe, in vivid detail, what she experienced morning, noon and night. The typewriter she used was the size of a handbag, she reports.
“My mother [the late Cleo] had kept all of the aerograms and sent them to me in 1998 or 1999,” McMillin says over a cappuccino at a Starbucks in Wilmette. “They were in three folders. I shared them with Jim [the late James Reiss, a poet and Mary Jo’s second husband], and he was the one who suggested to me to write the aerograms in the present tense for the book. Present tense creates an illusion that lets the reader observe the action as it unfolds.
“Reading those aerograms after all those years, I couldn’t believe all I had forgotten.”
But she was too busy at her restaurant at the time of the reunion with her written words to tackle a full-time writing project.
McMillin writes, in the Introduction in The Njombe Road, “I kept the idea of a memoir on the back burner. After I sold my business and spent two years writing a cookbook, it was time to go back to the aerograms before their faint print vanished.”
On the morning of November 23, 1963, Mary Jo and Bob sat in the dining room at the White Horse Inn in Iringa, Tanganyika, spooning segments of grapefruit. The hotel’s proprietor sprinted to couple’s table. He had news. Terrible news. Mary Jo and Bob followed him to his office. Ham radio blared an announcement.
They clutched their napkins as they listened.
“That’s where we found out JFK had been assassinated,” McMillin says.
In May 1964, McMillin taught two 80-minute English classes each school day at the boarding school. The windows in the classroom were glassless.
“Occasionally,” she writes, “some of the school’s cows pass poking their heads in the windows.”
What exactly is it like to be a 20-something American standing before a class of secondary school students in eastern Africa in the 1960s?
McMillin provides that answer, brilliantly, in her memoir:
As I stand at the head of the class each day in my sneakers, socks, wool skirt, and sweater, I look down to see that only a few of the boys have shoes, much less pullovers. The desks and chairs are wobbly; the books are ragged. Most boys use twig and quill pens for writing. Much of the black is worn off our chalkboard, and a white dusty cloth serves as an eraser. I lean against a rickety table as the wind howls. When rain pounds on the metal roof, we can scarcely hear one another.
You, the reader, are right there with the passing, curious cows, receiving an eyeful and an earful of the scene, thanks to McMillin, an artist.
And a mother. And a grandmother. She moved to Wilmette 10 years ago to be closer to her son, David, and to her daughter, Catherine. Both live in Winnetka. David has twin daughters; Catherine has a 5-year-old son.
“My daughter is reading my second book to her son,” says McMillin, who blogs at Mary Jo’s Kitchen (mjcuisine.wordpress.com) and cooks for her friends and for events at Christ Church-Winnetka, where she also sings in the choir.
McMillin’s next mission is a stateside one. She would like, with permission, to enter a local school someday and address junior high students about a lost art.
“The art of letter writing,” she says. “Where did it go? Where did journaling go? Kids are misspelling too many words. No one, it seems, knows how to make a sentence anymore. When I was young, buying stationery was an important thing, a big thing. I also bought fountain pens. I had a great English teacher in college. He made us write good, detailed sentences.
“I’d write long letters to home and to my best friend. It’s what I loved to do.”
That love endures.