Everywhere I go, from markets to furniture stores, once people find out about my new job as food editor they smile. And then they proceed to tell me about Mary Alice.
Blade food editor Mary Bilyeu with former Blade food editor Mary Alice Powell.
Mary Alice Powell, that is, who is so beloved here in Toledo that she’s fondly remembered as an authority on cooking even though several others have taken up her spatula and her keyboard since her retirement. Mary Alice, who set the standard for food writing in this town, covering everything from recipes to restaurants. Mary Alice, who continues to write for The Blade because readers love her so dearly that they don’t want to let her go entirely, even though they wish her well and know she’s earned the opportunity — after a 41 year career — to travel and to spend time relaxing with friends, and with her cats.
It was a tremendous privilege, then, to meet Mary Alice last week and join her for lunch. She sweetly, graciously wanted to know a bit about me; but I was fascinated to learn more about her.
Of course, I didn’t take notes because I was so enthralled to hear about her adventures over the decades. This was about the experience of sharing a meal, of sharing stories, of sharing wisdom. And of sharing dessert. When just the notion of it was presented to us by our waiter, Mary Alice leapt in before I could even take a breath to ask if she wanted anything. My kindred spirit, we even ordered two desserts and split them!
Mary Alice and I talked about food, about how cooking and eating trends have changed; we also talked about newspapers and how media are evolving. We talked about different chefs she’s met and restaurants she’s eaten in. We talked about friends she’d made through interviews and assignments. We talked about how people bond over food, just as we were doing.
Really, we talked about life and how we never know what it has in store for us. Who could have predicted that a girl who was born and raised in New York City would move to Michigan and then, years later, start a new life in Toledo? And who could have known, when Mary Alice began her own career, that it would last so long and that so many people would be devoted to her? Many of us write about food, but very few become what could be called “an institution.”
When staff at the restaurant we were at, and even the owner of the place next door, found out that Mary Alice was there, they came up to greet her warmly, to welcome her home. Many people have told me how they learned to cook, as young brides, with the help of Mary Alice’s recipes. And she told me herself of how she would recognize talented individuals and try to pair them up with those who could utilize their skills. As Nancy Rodgers, the photographer who joined us to capture our wonderful time together, noted, Mary Alice has “changed people’s lives.”
Our lunch was filled with good food, with hearty laughter, with fond memories, and with wonderful, hopeful wishes for the future. I feel deeply honored to be able to call Mary Alice my friend. That makes me a bit more of a Toledoan, now, doesn’t it? Because I know that Mary Alice Powell holds a very special place in all of your hearts, too.