Eating their words 

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by Sarah Henry 

At this year’s International Association of Culinary Professionals conference, the grande dame of food writing, ex-Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, made an impassioned plea for our planet and the way we produce our food. She noted that the things that make fast food cheap—readily available fossil fuels, water, and predictable weather—are all in dangerously short supply. There’s never been a better time to write about good food, says Reichl, or a more critical time to do so. These three alumnae, who all share Reichl’s concern for the way we eat, are doing just that. 

Tara Austen Weaver, MFA ’04, the warm and witty voice behind the elegant Tea & Cookies (selected by the London Times as one of the top 50 food blogs in the world), is a freelance writer and author of The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis (Rodale, 2010), where she charts her progress as a reluctant carnivore after a lifetime as a vegetarian. She tells a funny and poignant tale of entering the mysterious world of meat, and of discovering butchers and bacon, all while trying to figure out if steak, osso Buco, and barbeque might cure the persistent fatigue that plagued her. You’d never know it by reading her prose, but like many wordsmiths, she finds the writing process challenging. “Mills gave me perspective and community, the opportunity to be surrounded by people who loved and struggled with writing the same way I do,” says the 39-year-old who divides her time between Seattle and San Francisco. “At Mills, I began to understand the craft of writing, and how to take what I did instinctually and make it better.” 

In 2009, Kyle Cornforth ’03 packed up her family and headed to the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand, to spend a year as director of the Prem Organic Cooking and Farming Academy. The Academy teaches traditional Thai cooking and farming techniques to young students from schools around the world as well as to adult travelers. In Thailand, Cornforth wanted to share what she had learned about local, sustainable, and organic cooking working as the program coordinator for the Edible Schoolyard, the kitchen-garden program founded by chef and food activist Alice Waters at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. (Cornforth met her husband, Jay Cohen, a teacher at the school, in the garden.) She documents her cross-cultural experiences in often-amusing entries, like the one where she pines for bread, on her blog, Cornhens in Thailand. 

A resumer, she credits her time at Mills for imparting invaluable life lessons. “I learned to speak up and speak out there,” says Cornforth, 30, who will return to Berkeley this fall. “I learned it was important to never compromise my values in my professional life. And I wanted my daughter to see that I was actively engaged in trying to make the world a better place.” Perhaps the most important lesson: “Juggling it all—work, education, mothering, marriage, and everything else that makes up a full life—is a constant balancing act.” 

It’s very clear to Romney “Nani” Steele ’02, MFA ’04, that she arrived at Mills—also as a resumer and with two young children in tow—hungry to learn. Today, Steele, a writer, chef, and food stylist, calls her years at Mills an empowering experience. “Mills is where I first found my voice in a place that valued women,” says the 44-year-old Oakland resident. “And it was at Mills that I discovered my path as a painter, poet, and literary writer.” 

All these attributes are on display in Steele’s memoir-cookbook, My Nepenthe (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2009), the tale of her family’s iconic restaurant in Big Sur, the California Central Coast enclave perched on a spectacular cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Sunset describes Steele’s book as “a valentine to one of the most beautiful places to eat in the world.” Epicurious named it the best American regional cookbook of 2009. 

Steele describes the eclectic history of the eatery—and her family—in a richly visual book that exudes a warm patina of archival images, vibrant tapestries, and artfully arranged food photographs, along with her trademark lyrical writing style. She’d always wanted to tell the colorful story of her childhood and her unorthodox upbringing among artists, movie stars, writers, seekers, and wanderers, but it wasn’t until after she completed college that she felt ready for the task.  

Steele, who also writes about culinary concerns online at My Nepenthe (, says, “Mills was the first place I truly felt that I am an artist with something to say and something worth sharing.”