Wednesday, September 9, 2009
67. America Eats! On the Road with the WPA: the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts that Define Real American Food, by Pat Willard
The Works Progress Administration was one of the glories of the New Deal. Although it employed millions of people, it is probably best known for the work it provided to artists and writers through the Federal Writers' Project and the Federal Artists' Project. One of the projects it embarked on was to document "how America eats", more specifically, to document local social gatherings at which food was served and thus describe "American" cookery and its importance to community. Despite the many writers and photographers who contributed to the project, the planned book (to be called America Eats! never came to fruition, but the papers were boxed up, and, though many were lost, many were preserved.
Decades later, Pat Willard had the brilliant idea of going back to the towns and gatherings visited by the FWP writers to find out if those traditions and foods were still around. Her book alternates excerpts from the original manuscripts with her own descriptions of what she found, grouped by themes such as "Agricultural Fairs", "Fund-raising Dinners", "Political Gatherings" and the like. (She also includes a few recipes, as lagniappe.) Willard found that many of the events memorialized by the FWP writers no longer existed or had been transformed (some weren't even remembered!), but others were still going strong.
As we travel the roads of the United States, eating dishes ranging from Brunswick Stew in North Carolina to barbecued salmon in Oregon, we learn, through the food and the reasons for the socializing, the history and culture of these places. Lucky Pat Willard, to taste so many good things. And I greatly appreciate her bringing the stories written for the FWP out of the boxes in which they'd been stores and into the light of day.
If I have any quibble with the book, it is with Willard's defensiveness about American cuisine. The food can speak for itself!