A Pioneering Life in Food and Glass
Written by Peggy Haine, photo by Jeffrey Foote
Cornelius (Neal) O’Donnell—bon vivant emeritus, author, raconteur, journalist, cooking school director, world traveler, industrial spokesman, champion of regional chefs and their establishments—has stories he’s not shy about telling. In his 85 years he’s amassed a roasting-pan-load of them.
Growing up in a food-appreciating family, Neal served in the Army as officers’ club manager in Korea, when, he remembers fondly, a fifth of Gordon’s Gin went for 95 cents. Returning Stateside, he paid his dues at a large ad agency in Albany during the “Mad Men” days, then earned his MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In search of a job promoting consumer products, he traveled to the Southern Tier for an interview with Corning Glass.
He’d been impressed with their TV ads featuring Corning scientists in action. He interviewed around the year-end holidays, and recalls that dinner at the Treadway Inn’s restaurant featured a traditional boar’s head ceremony. He was enchanted. Hired as an ad person for its science products, “I didn’t know a beaker from a flask,” he said.
But word of his love of cooking and entertaining co-workers got back to management, and when they needed an outgoing person with culinary skills to demonstrate their flat-top ranges all over the world, he seemed a perfect fit. He remembers fondly working with culinary icon James Beard promoting Corning’s products. He found himself in the pantheon of America’s mid-century celebrity chefs, among them Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. His portrait was drawn by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld (count the Ninas!), and he was profiled in the New Yorker.
The Corning Cookbook, published in 1982 by Random House, and written with the help of his “corps de cuisine” (local homemakers) and richly illustrated, won him a prestigious National Book Award that year, and so many years later is still a cook’s delight.
Retiring in the mid-’90s, he found plenty to do, serving on the boards of regional arts institutions, writing about food for local newspapers and magazines and running a cooking school at Corning’s 171 Cedar Arts Center utilizing local talent, “of which,” he said, “we have plenty,” including Suzanne Fine Regional Cuisine’s Suzanne Stack, Stonecat Café’s Scott Signori and Fox Run’s Brud Holland, among the region’s top chefs who taught there.
An inveterate cookbook collector, his home is lined wall-to-wall and on most horizontal surfaces with cookbooks.
But mostly, he is known in recent years for his support of the region’s foods and those who produce it. Said Stonecat Café’s Signori, “He is awesome, just a bundle of joy, a champion of the region and a champion of all chefs. Working with him, he made you feel like the most special person that ever was.”
Peggy Haine has been an awed observer of the Finger Lakes cider revolution. She writes for various local publications on food, booze and the glorious Finger Lakes region and its remarkable growers and producers.
Jeffrey Foote has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years and lives in Ithaca.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2020 Issue of the magazine.