America Eats: Pioneers of Food Writing

Author:

Camille B├ęgin

America Eats was a pioneering food writing project conceptualized in the middle of the Great Depression by the editors of the state-sponsored Federal Writers' Project (FWP). Already by the 1930s, many considered local foodways to be endangered by the industrialization of the food system and the growing influence of nutrition science on how Americans chose their foods. To counter this standardization of taste, the Federal Writers' Project launched an audacious quest to document the core of American foodways, independent of the economic downturns of the late 1930s, health advice, and dietary fads. The project mobilized writers in every state of the country to document local habits and preferences. 
 
Goals and Scope
 
The aim of America Eats was to produce a simultaneously mouth-watering and educational account of American foodways and local taste. The editors were inspired by recent scholarly breakthroughs in the fields of anthropology and folklore and were looking for "patterns of eating." They wanted the essays to be descriptive, precise, and sensorial – as we would expect to find in the best of today's food writing. They understood food as a central part of culture and aspired to show the uniqueness of the American table, particularly how it differed from European cuisines. This last goal became increasingly important as the project grew. With the looming involvement of the country in World War II, America Eats, while keeping its documentary aim, became much more about strengthening patriotism. Writers from western states latched onto this new goal, celebrating the meat-heavy, masculine character of their diets: food fit for a nation at war. 
 
The America Eats project was shaped by tensions and constant back-and-forth between federal editors and state-based writers. The editors were educated, liberal new dealers. We know less about the writers. They were impoverished white-collar workers whose literary talents varied greatly. A small number became famous after World War II, such as Nelson Algreen and Richard Wright. But most of the writers, apart from a name or cultural reference here and there, remain generally hard to track. The correspondence linked to America Eats is key to understanding its strength and weaknesses. For instance, the editors hoped to produce a book of the collected essays, but they did not want to produce a cookbook. They wanted to create a book that would be read in the living room – not one that would be used in the kitchen. Yet despite consistent instructions to state-based writers, many kept sending in recipes. The project was never completed, and we are left with a hodgepodge of sources: essays, recipes, letters, photographs, and the occasional newspaper clipping.
 
The editors explicitly stated that the purpose of America Eats was not to report on the hunger and hardship of the Depression years. If writers documented the Great Depression, it was only incidentally. For instance, many essays from the Midwest described community dinners put together to raise money and feed the community at a cheap price. "Fun feeds," "school picnics," and "box-dinners" are good examples. For box-dinners, each girl would make dinner for two and put it in a box. The boxes would then be auctioned off and the buyer would have dinner with the cook. At the end of the America Eats project, the focus shifted to how to make do in hard times, but that was because of impending wartime restrictions, not the Depression.
 
Regional Foodways: Towards a National Cuisine?
 
America Eats carved the nation into five culinary regions: the Northeast; the South; the Middle West; the Far West; and the Southwest. The editors envisioned that the America Eats book would document food events such as clambakes in the Northeast, farm dinners in the Middle West, and church picnics in the South. Some regional American foodways were already part of the popular imagination by the 1930s: for instance, cookbooks on Southern food and Pennsylvania Dutch cooking were popular. Mexican food was strongly associated with the Southwest, though not fully understood as a regional American food yet (the concept of Tex-Mex emerged only in the 1960s). 
 
Why this insistence on regional foodways? America Eats was a reaction to the standardization of taste and food habits. Industrial food, such as hot dogs and canned fruits, were popular nationwide. Nostalgia for an allegedly more wholesome era of regional cooking and eating was ubiquitous throughout the project. Further, the Federal Writers' Project's effort at documenting regional foodways can be understood as an attempt to define a national cuisine. National cuisines are often the results of political and cultural developments that rely on the codification of regional foodways. This process was underway in France and Italy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. America Eats inaugurated this trend in the United States, where the existence – or non-existence – of a national cuisine is still debated. 
 
What the America Eats editors had not foreseen was the extent to which immigrant "ethnic" foods were woven into regional eating habits and tastes by the 1930s. Throughout the America Eats essays, writers and editors grappled with the fact that Italian, Greek, or Chinese food could not be considered the food of migrant enclave communities anymore, but had become American food in their own right, and often, American regional food. In a period during which legal definitions and vernacular understandings of race and ethnicity were fast evolving, this caused a lot of confusion. For example, would an essay on Southern foodways include the Italian community of Tontitown, Arkansas, where people regularly ate spaghetti and fried chicken together? The question remained unanswered. 
 
Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in the America Eats Project
 
Stereotypes, especially around gender and race, influenced the style and content of America Eats. Contributors had to write fast and they seldom questioned their cultural assumptions. For instance, stereotypes about African Americans were commonplace and America Eats' writers often included disparaging comments about African Americans' allegedly "primitive" tastes. Yet, this stereotype could also be deployed to explain that they were the best cooks, apt at satisfying white taste buds. In this logic, African Americans' allegedly unrefined natures made them superior cooks, uncorrupted by the modern evils of nutrition science and industrial food. In fact, racist stereotypes could obscure the role of systemic discrimination, legal segregation, and class in shaping foodways and taste.
 
America Eats material also romanticized difference. This is particularly noticeable in material from the Southwest describing Mexican American tastes and foodways. Although a small number of Spanish-speakers participated in America Eats, most essays on Mexican food described a tasty, spicy cuisine worth trying for the thrill and as a demonstration of manliness. Mexican Americans were, in these descriptions, standing apart from the speed of modern life, a romantic and colorful backdrop to American progress. 
Women had an ambiguous place in America Eats. They were both celebrated for their scrumptious layer cakes and blamed for the demise of the American table as they had allegedly surrendered to the sirens of the food industry. The pendulum kept swinging. 
 
America Eats' Legacy
 
Most states sent in material for American Eats to the federal office in Washington, D.C., in the fall and winter of 1941-42, just as the United States was entering World War II. The book never made it into print. When the Federal Writers' Project closed, the bulk of the material was sent to the Library of Congress, where it remains to this day. A number of local state archives also received America Eats material. The vast majority of them have been digitized and regrouped on this website, giving you exceptional insight into 1930s American food writing. 
 
Until recently, America Eats was more or less forgotten. Yet its relevance to Americans today is becoming evident. America Eats was 70 years ahead of its time with its celebration of local, homemade fare and sensuous food writing. It is also an object of its time: a time of legal racial segregation, prescriptive gender roles, and evolving notions of identities. America Eats' limitations do not undermine its narrative; they are key to understanding the history of food in the United States and need to be acknowledged as part of the project's new status as an American classic. 
 
Camille Bégin is a lecturer at the Culinaria Research Center at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the author of Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search For America's Food (University of Illinois Press, 2016).
 

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