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Mary Is Writing a Marvelous Cookbook

Mon, 05/22/2023 - 16:41
"My goal is to create a community again, initially off of the memory of Mary's Marvelous, but also as a platform to talk about what it's like now for me to be cooking at home and living outside the world of the commercial kitchen," Mary Schoenlein said.
Doug Young

When Mary Schoenlein closed her popular Mary's Marvelous takeout spot and bakery in East Hampton almost two years ago, she promised loyal customers that big things were on the horizon, including a cookbook. This year, she is working to make good on that promise.

"I always wanted to have a book, just like I always wanted to have a place of my own," Ms. Schoenlein said earlier this month. When she closed the shop, "that's when I decided now's the time to really sink into this."

Those who follow Mary's Marvelous on social media may have noticed back in February that she began to tease that new endeavor with recipes and how-tos for some of the shop's favorites: first, mulligatawny soup; then turkey and black bean chili. And just when you could practically smell the apricot scones cooling on the counter, she announced that she was compiling those recipes into a book. Posts about buckwheat pancakes, carrot-raisin muffins, arepas, protein power bars, cinnamon buttermilk coffee cake, apple cranberry scones, frittatas, and a banana mocha layer cake followed, each one a reminder of why her shop often had a line out the door. 

As for the Mary's Marvelous treats that regulars still miss, "Everything is pretty much in the book," she said. "I'm very confident about people's ability to make all these recipes. My food is very simple."

Ms. Schoenlein has had to translate her commercial-scale recipes for home kitchens. When baking for the store, for example, everything was weighed because the measurements were so much more precise. "We did an experiment in the store once: We got six one-cup measuring cups -- and every one was different." Realizing that many home bakers may not have scales to weigh flour and sugar in grams, she originally planned to forego weights in the cookbook, but the end results, she said, are definitely different, so she may include them after all. 

"The first thing that I'm going to do," she said, "is introduce some of the recipes in a newsletter format via Substack," an online interactive platform for writers and podcasters. "I'm looking forward to that, to reconnecting with people in a new way." At the same time, with the help of a writing coach, she is building her book and drawing up a proposal to shop around to publishers.

"Writing, for me, is a new adventure," she said. 

When it came to turning her expertise in the kitchen into a book that other people might buy, as much as she longed to do it, "I think I spent a lot of years in fear about it," she admitted. "The conventional thinking is very discouraging. 'A big publisher won't look at you; they need this and this and this.' " She pushed herself to overcome that self-doubt. "I have hundreds of cookbooks in my cookbook library. Everybody has a voice, and that includes me." 

She talked to writers she knew, and other friends, including Ina Garten, who had published cookbooks, and to their agents, and generally tried to understand the process -- the recipe, as it were.

The photographer Doug Young has been taking pictures of her recipes and helping her to reignite her social-media presence. And her coach, Susan Puckett, a food writer and editor from Atlanta "who has been in the business for years," has been helping Ms. Schoenlein polish recipes and explore her story and possible outlets for it. Because Ms. Schoenlein wants to reach farther afield than just the people who already know about her shop, Ms. Puckett advised her to "communicate what Mary's was to a broader audience." 

In a visual step-by-step, clockwise from top left, Mary Schoenlein shows how to make the apricot scones that were one of the staples at Mary's Marvelous. Doug Young Photos

"My goal is to create a community again, initially off of the memory of Mary's Marvelous, but also as a platform to talk about what it's like now for me to be cooking at home and living outside the world of the commercial kitchen." Ms. Schoenlein spent about 40 years, half of them in New York, as a professional cook or chef, working in restaurants, for catering companies, and as a private chef, before heading east to the South Fork. "The common thread was food service and connecting with people through food," she said. "But there's a rigor to the life, and it was a lot of my life."

She enjoyed cooking from an early age. Growing up on the island of Bermuda, "some of that was a necessity, because my mom was a single parent raising four children. Each of us was assigned a cooking night." When she moved to Rochester, N.Y., as a young woman, she decided to explore cooking as a job. "I had been teaching severe and profoundly handicapped kids in a school, and I wanted to do something different." First she tried catering, then working in a hotel kitchen with a chef who had trained in classical French kitchens. He encouraged her to go to New York City or to Europe, and she followed his advice on both fronts. 

"It was the early '80s, when the food world in New York was really starting to blossom." She worked at the Gotham Bar and Grill, spent six months in France, then returned to the city to work in catering, where she met her husband, Pat McKibbin, a cater waiter at the time. 

"I was looking at as many cooking venues as I could," she said. "I was looking for a lifestyle." The search led her to the East End, where she became a chef at Jerry Della Femina's Red Horse Market. "I always wanted to have my own business, but I didn't want a sit-down restaurant," she said. When she noticed a tiny spot in Amagansett, next door to Michael Cinque's Amagansett Wine and Spirits, she met with Mr. Cinque, who owns the building. With a handshake, the space was hers. ("I miss her, and the carrot-raisin muffins," Mr. Cinque said this week.)

The first Mary's Marvelous opened in Amagansett in 2002. "It was really homespun." Her husband and mother-in-law designed the layout and did much of the work themselves in advance of opening. Ten years later, when she was ready to grow the business, she expanded to the former Bucket's Deli and neighboring space on Newtown Lane opposite the train station. "We did a gut renovation  . . . Mary's in Amagansett was completely us," but for the East Hampton shop, "we had an architect, we had builders . . . The renovation was really fun -- terrifying, but really fun."  

She ran both stores for five years, but staffing issues led her to close Amagansett in 2017, and five years later to re-evaluate Mary's Marvelous once again. "The thing that was challenging and became unsustainable was having staff to fill in every piece of the business so I could be doing what really benefited the business. I was very challenged by the staffing situation. I was essentially working as an employee in my business, and I was filling several people's shoes."

"I'm very happy with my decision to close the business," she said. "It was time for me to do something beyond that, and I had known that for several years. I feel as if that chapter has been completed." 

That said, she does miss her commercial kitchen. "I love the equipment, the team aspect of kitchens, and the camaraderie and the care that people took with me and with each other . . . A commercial kitchen is an environment that encourages me in a different way . . . It's a workshop; that's how I always saw it, and then filling it with other people, if you're in the groove and the flow, it's such a magical feeling." 

"Now I'm living differently, and I really enjoy it," she said. "I'm following interests, I'm taking classes, I'm being the student I never knew I was, because I dropped out of college. I'm learning new things about myself. "

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