'America Eats': A Hidden Archive from the 1930s

Hidden Kitchens — we aren't the first project to look for them. Our search for the kitchen legacies of this country has uncovered rituals, recipes and now, an archive. Producer Jamie York and The Kitchen Sisters followed a listener's call to the Library of Congress and beyond — and discovered "America Eats."

Men wrap beef in cheesecloth at a sheriff's barbecue in Los Angeles.

Men wrap beef in cheesecloth at a sheriff's barbecue in Los Angeles. The photo was one of many taken for the WPA's "America Eats" project between 1930 and 1941. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

Talking Recipes

Story Notes

During our planning process, we read Mark Kurlansky's book Choice Cuts: Food Writing from Around the World and Throughout History and came across the following passage:

"In the 1930s Nelson Algren, a young fiction writer who in 1949 would win the first National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm, joined the Illinois Writers Project, part of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA)."

It set us on the course of this story and led us to the Library of Congress, where some of the "America Eats" archives are housed. This remarkable WPA project chronicling American "foodways" in the 1930s has never been published. The parallels between this project and ours astounded us.

Each region had its own "America Eats" team. Their writings, photographs and even some scripts for a proposed weekly radio program are tucked away in collections around the country — at the New York Municipal Archive, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the University of Iowa Library, and the State Library and Archives of Florida, as well as at the Library of Congress.

Independent producer Jamie York traveled to Florida to interview one of the last living writers on the project, Stetson Kennedy, whose photographs you can view in our photo gallery on this page, and online at The Library of Congress.

— The Kitchen Sisters

Story Credits

Produced by Jamie York and The Kitchen Sisters. Mixed by Jeremiah Moore.

In collaboration with Tim Folger, Jay Allison, Laura Folger, Kate Volkman, Melissa Robbins, Viki Merrick, Sydney Lewis, Chelsea Merz and Susan Leem.

Typical Cow-Boy Breakfast

'America Eats' Stories

John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance; WPA photographer Stetson Kennedy; 'Chicago Tribune' columnist and author Rick Kogan; and Mark Kurlansky, a chef, author and food historian, share stories about the "America Eats" projects:

Listen: Stetson Kennedy Recalls His Days with the WPA

Listen: Mark Kurlansky Reads a Quote from Author Nelson Algren, Who Worked on the 'America Eats' Project, from Kurlansky's Book 'Choice Cuts'

Listen: Kurlansky Reads a Passage about Miners' Lunchboxes from the 'America Eats' Archives

Listen: John T. Edge Gives Elevated Status to Cooking & Eating Together

Listen: Drawn to the People and Stories Behind the Recipes, Edge Tells Us Why 'America Eats' Matters

Listen: Edge Reads from One of His Favorite Tales -- 'Fish Fry on the Levee' -- from the Mississippi Archives

Listen: In This Story of a Political BBQ, Read by Edge, It's the Pit Master and the Lemonade Maker Who Hold the Podium

Listen: Rick Kogan Reads the Closing Lines of Algren's Book 'America Eats'

Special thanks to Saul Bellow. We'd also like to thank the following people at the Library of Congress; Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center; Marvin Kranz, manuscript historian; John Cole, director of The Center for the Book; Alice Birney, and Bibi Marti. Researchers: Charley Camp; Andrea Kalin; Barbara Kuck; Jerrold Hirsch; Kenneth Cobb; Susan Leem; Sandy Oliver; Greg Patent; Charles L. Perdue; Marjorie Wright; David Schoonover. Thanks also to folks at the America Eats archive at the University of Iowa Library's Louis Szathmary Collection, and to Barrett Golding, Andy Harper of the University of Mississippi, Tom Lynch & Amoeba Records in San Francisco.

About the Music

The following songs were heard in this story:

  • "Jet Black Blues," from Eddie Lang 1927-1932 on Classic Records.
  • "Blue Room and Eddie's Twisters," from Eddie Lang: Jazz Guitar Virtuoso on Yazoo Records.
  • "Franklin D Roosevelt, A Poor Man's Friend" and "Call Him by His Name," by Sacred Steel. Both available on Arhoolie Records.
  • "Cornbread, Meat and Molasses," by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. From Giants of the Blues on Smithsonian Records.

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