This book is a compilation of previously unpublished essays about how Americans cooked, ate, and interacted with food in the period just prior to World War II. This is significant because it’s when refrigeration, transportation, and the manufacture of processed foods became widespread. These three innovations completely changed the way Americans ate and thought about food. They were no longer limited to what was local and/or in season.
These essays were the product of the Federal Writers’ Project, which was in turn part of the Works Progress Administration. The federal government created the WPA to provide jobs to the millions of unemployed workers during the Great Depression. I was familiar with various WPA projects: buildings and improvements made to state and national parks, bridges and overpasses here in Pittsburgh, as well as art projects and installations throughout the country. But I was not aware of the Federal Writers’ Project, which employed artists and writers. The FWP had only one significant project prior to the unpublished America Eats project. It was the American Guide Series for each of the United States, modeled on Baedekers guides popular for European travelers. If you are interested in a snapshot of America from that time period, the Library has a collection available in the Reference Department at Main.
But back to tonight’s book . . . For this project, the country is divided into five sections, each containing stories, essays, descriptions, recipes, and even poems, all about local food and customs. In the Northeast section, I enjoyed the description of an “Italian Feed in Vermont” and a list of “New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon.” From the South, I loved reading about the contributions of Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. In the Middle West section, I was amused by a paragraph on the drinking habits of Kansans. A list of Colorado Superstitions about food from the Far West was fascinating. In the Southwest section, I loved learning that tacos needed an introduction in an article entitled “A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco.”
I found most interesting not how much people from these areas were different, but how much they had in common. They made do with what they had, used every part of every animal, and enjoyed gathering for large feasts and celebrations that revolved around food. Kentucky Oysters, Lamb or Pig Fries, or Oklahoma Prairie Oysters, anyone?
If you are available this evening between 6 – 7 PM, please join us in the Director’s Conference Room on the First Floor. We’d love to see you there.