Saturday, October 31, 2009

America Eats

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA - the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define

The growing interest in local food systems combined with the economic downturn makes for a good climate for books about American food of the Depression period. The rationing of World War II was followed by the transfer of wartime technologies for food preservation to the general marketplace, changing American food forever from a patchwork of regional cuisines to a national diet based on chain restaurants, frozen and canned food and, above all, homogeneity. The Depression period, for all the limitations that poverty brought to the tables of most Americans, can seem now like the last hurrah of real food.

So it’s a great time for the release of two new books about WPA food writing, a nearly-forgotten part of the great cultural projects of the New Deal. Though writers and editors were engaged to create a national guide to American food, the project was never completed and the writing produced never published, until this year. I haven’t read Mark Kulansky’s book The Food of Younger Land, which outlines the history of the project and then includes selections from the archive, focusing on writing from major authors like Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. Pat Willards’s America Eats: On the Road with the WPA takes a somewhat different approach, interlacing excerpts from the original WPA pieces with her own reporting from church dinners, harvest festivals, and other food-centered gatherings that have continued from WPA days.

This is a somewhat disorderly, frustrating book, which may result from the sheer variety of material Willard includes. The writing that was done for the WPA project spanned a range of styles, from journalistic reports to sentimental sketches to fictionalized accounts. The quality of the writing is a varied as the style. Among the best Willard included are a sensitive short story from Iola Thomas of the Iowa office about a threshers’ dinner and a description of the conch-eaters of the Florida Keys by Stetson Kennedy. Some of the other selections tend toward the twee, in some cases condescending to the subjects to a degree that is deeply off-putting.

Willard’s prose is clean and straightforward and her interest in American food and cultural tradition seems genuine. Some of the limitations of the book seem a direct result of the limitations of the primary material. Some regions were neglected in the original project; many arbitrary decisions were made about which immigrant foods were to be included and which were not “American enough;” cities other than New York were completely neglected. Willard, in following in the footsteps of the project, is forced into some of the same limitations, and she acknowledges them. But perhaps the greatest limitation, one which Willard references only briefly, is the focus on food events, rather than broader food traditions. We hear about the fairs and festivals, church suppers, political dinners and funeral feasts, but not about daily home cooking or, for that matter, professional cooking done in small eateries. This would not be a problem if Willard didn’t try to make larger claims for the meaning of the decline of these events in terms of larger culinary and social history. When trying to discuss these issues, particularly in the final chapter, Willard is weak, making poorly-supported assertions and moving on quickly without any depth of analysis. She lacks the subtle sensitivity for regional food evidence by a writer like John Thorne and the scholarly comprehensiveness of someone like Waverly Root. But she has skill at drawing a scene. I very much enjoyed her portrait of the Basque Sheepherders Ball, the funeral feast of the Choctaw Indians, and the Mexican coaches of South Sixth Avenue in Tucson.

In trying to find and report upon the closest equivalents to events described in the original WPA pieces, Willard also fails to look at newly developing food traditions. The resurgence in interest in local foods has lead to new celebrations of regional specialties. In my part of the country, there are maple syrup days, cheese festivals, harvest fairs and homebrewer competitions that may be recent in origin (some dating to the first “back to the earth” gatherings of the seventies, others part of the most recent local food revival), but are nonetheless authentic inheritors of the spirit of those festivals of the 1930s, social events truly centered on a shared love of good food. By ignoring new traditions, Willard paints an incomplete picture of the current state of American food and its place in community life.

Overall, the book may not provide a lot of insight into the changes in America’s food culture, but it is enjoyable as a kind of scrapbook of American food celebrations of the Depression and today.