Thursday, September 10, 2009

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA

During the Great Depression, many programs were created by the Federal Government to provide jobs for those who had none. We are still benefitting today from the fruits of that labor which created many public buildings, roads, bridges and parks. One project, however, never saw the light of day.

The "America Eats!" project was about traditional American food. Out-of-work writers were assigned to write about the events in their communities and the food that was served at them. The final document was not meant to be a cookbook. It was more akin to a documentation of regional foods made by non-professional cooks and served at regional gatherings such as fairs, church socials and harvest festivals.

Author Pat Willard, who stumbled on to the project while reading a book for research, was intrigued enough to visit the Library of Congress where many of the original manuscripts are stored. Reading the surviving documents inspired her to make a cross-country culinary tour, visiting the places and events written about in "America Eats!" to find out if they still existed and if so, how they had changed if at all.

She was heartened to discover that many of the local events mentioned in America Eats! are still going on albeit with a few modern changes. Squirrel meat, once the main ingredient in Brunswick stew, has been replaced by poultry, beef and pork due to the dangers of Mad Squirrel Disease (who knew?). She traces the evolution of the foodie culture in Washington State from the local harvest festivals mentioned in America Eats!, which are still going on.

Other local gatherings never made it to the 21st century. The traditional southern barbecues that were once mandatory for political events have disappeared. The mile long trenches filled with smoldering wood have fallen victim to zoning ordinances forbidding them on public land. Tobacco, once an important crop in North Carolina, is being replaced by vineyards that have led to new festivals celebrating wine.

Each chapter covers a particular type of event such as rodeos, funerals, harvest festivals and social clubs, to name a few. A relevant essay from "America Eats!" is followed by the author's own experience followed by more essays and occasionally, recipes. Because each essay was penned by a different author, the reader is able to get a sense of the local customs and culture as they were experienced by the people living at that time.

The book begins and ends with what can only be called rants about American cooking. Ms. Willard is rather defensive about our indigenous cuisine. In the first chapter she defends its shortcomings compared to European cuisines and then in the last chapter laments its demise thanks to the entry of women into the workforce leaving them no time to cook.

This would be a much better book without the author's long-winded opinions of American cooking. If you excise the first half of the beginning chapter and all of the last chapter, you have a wonderful book about Americans, their customs and their food, past and present.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

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