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Food History & Culture

The Grand, Unfinished Task Of Chronicling How America Eats

In 1939, the Federal Writer's Project launched an ambitious program to document the country's food traditions at a time of great culinary change – as fast-food was rising, local traditions were waning and "ethnic" cuisine was becoming American cuisine. Above, a man eats oysters from the shell at a political rally in Jackson, Miss., in 1940. The image was shot as part of the America Eats project. Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

In 1939, the Federal Writer's Project launched an ambitious program to document the country's food traditions at a time of great culinary change – as fast-food was rising, local traditions were waning and "ethnic" cuisine was becoming American cuisine. Above, a man eats oysters from the shell at a political rally in Jackson, Miss., in 1940. The image was shot as part of the America Eats project.

Library of Congress

It's Dec. 13, 1938, and Arnie Manoff, 24-year-old starving writer, has been sent by the government to interview the man who created the Reuben sandwich. The sandwich man is big, bawdy Arnold Reuben — he loves to regale audiences with the origin story of his sandwich nearly as much as he loves to name drop the B-list celebrities that frequent the booths of his restaurant. Sometimes, he tells Manoff, in a spitty voice brimming with pride, he even names a special after them.

"I'm not like the average delicatessen, boy," Reuben tells Manoff. "Ideas, I always had ideas about things. When I name a sandwich I try to make it fit the character and temperament of the celebrity. Now you take Walter Winchell. I made him a sandwich of roast beef, Swiss cheese and sliced dill pickle. Oh, there's so many of them, boys, it just keeps going."

Manoff was one of the 6,600 men and women, mostly young and unmarried, employed under the Federal Writer's Project, part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Work's Progress Administration plan to aid white-collar workers during the Great Depression. From 1937 until 1941, the FWP published the American Guide Series, books and pamphlets that detail the history and culture of all 48 contiguous states, in essay form. Published authors and unknowns alike were hired to tour a small regional slice of the country and write — simply — about the smallest nuances of the way people lived. Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Studs Terkel worked alongside former stenographers and unemployed secretaries; each traveling their beat, for around $41.00 every two weeks.

The interviews ran the gamut of food culture – discourses with formerly enslaved cooks resting in hot Southern kitchens and tales from the trenches of department store lunchrooms. Together, they paint a distinctive picture of how America lived—and ate — during the Depression.

Men pose with piles of wrapped beef, ready for the barbecue pits, at a Los Angeles sheriff's barbecue. The end goal of the America Eats project was to assemble material for a book exploring "American cookery and the part it has played in national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes, but also transitional attitudes and customs." Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

Men pose with piles of wrapped beef, ready for the barbecue pits, at a Los Angeles sheriff's barbecue. The end goal of the America Eats project was to assemble material for a book exploring "American cookery and the part it has played in national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes, but also transitional attitudes and customs."

Library of Congress

But deeper in the archives of the Library of Congress are the remnants of an abandoned project begun near the end of the Federal Writer's Project, as interest in the program waned and the threat of America's involvement in World War II loomed. It was a program called America Eats and the vision of Katherine Kellock, the FWP's lead editor.

Kellock wanted to delve deeper in the "ethnic traditions, as well as the regional and local customs" of the country. In 1939, the rituals of dining and cultural food offerings were largely regional and mostly static. But Kellock discerned an America dangling its legs over an ocean of great culinary change.

While old traditions were still buoyant against the swift current of innovation, simple luxuries such as frozen food storage, fast food restaurants and modernization in food packaging were approaching to change the tide. On the horizon were easier ways to make sandwiches, to store leftovers and reheat the baked beans. If there was ever a time to record the "old" way of cooking, it was now, and Kellock knew it.

But there was more.

Crowds of African-American and white people are separated by a long counter covered with slices of bread at F.M. Gay's annual barbecue, held on his plantation every year in Alabama. Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

Crowds of African-American and white people are separated by a long counter covered with slices of bread at F.M. Gay's annual barbecue, held on his plantation every year in Alabama.

Library of Congress

The Emergency Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 had restricted the number of new immigrants entering the United States after World War I. As fewer immigrants came to America over the following decades, families that already lived in the U.S. planted deeper social roots. Over time, traditional elements of immigrant "ethnic" culture — especially cooking — gradually integrated into the wider national experience.

In her new book, Taste Of The Nation, Author Camille Begin explains how "iconic ethnic dishes— spaghetti, chili, chop suey — once regarded as foreign and exotic, became familiar and comforting staples of the Depression era." By the end of World War II, ethnic cuisine — Italian, Chinese, Mexican food—-would evolve into a national American cuisine.

Kellock transmitted a memo to the regional offices of the Federal Writer's Project. Workers were delegated to the field to observe the rituals of mealtime gatherings across the entire country. The end goal was to assemble material for a 75,000-word book exploring "American cookery and the part it has played in national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes, but also transitional attitudes and customs."

Women prepare the Southern food staple knows as chicken perlou (or pilau) at a cookout in Florida. What editor Katherine Kellock envisioned in America Eats was a chronicle of coast-to-coast cooking that would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Stetson Kennedy/Library of Congress hide caption

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Stetson Kennedy/Library of Congress

Women prepare the Southern food staple knows as chicken perlou (or pilau) at a cookout in Florida. What editor Katherine Kellock envisioned in America Eats was a chronicle of coast-to-coast cooking that would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers.

Stetson Kennedy/Library of Congress

So, out marched the newly minted food writers of the FWP. And the stories they brought back were a distinctive pastiche of Depression-era gastronomic essays and primers on pre-war cooking methodology, wordy snapshots of America's diminishing localized traditions.

There were detailed instructions for the preparations of Choctaw Indian Walakshi and Montana Fried Beaver Tail. A writer from Maine conjured up salted scenes of a clam bake at dusk, right down to the rubber boots and the "old hoe" required to dig out the clams. "Your muscles will now ache thoroughly," thus, upon finishing the preparations for the bake, he forewarns the reader, "you will need to sit around to relax and smack your lips."

America Eats offered intricate formulas for cocktails, a refreshing, post-Prohibition discovery from this literary time capsule. There were tips from a seasoned bartender from the Pendennis Club in Louisville on how to make a gentlemanly Old-fashioned, ponderings over the "merits" of homemade Mississippi pear wine, and an essay on the "controversy" over the provenance of the mint julep.

Writer Don Dolan was dispatched to the streets of Los Angeles to investigate a mysterious delicacy christened a taco. Behold, a "tortilla fluttered through hot grease, folded around shrimp, sausage, and chili stew, garnished with shredded lettuces and grated cheese," the mystified Dolan penned. Edward O'Brien trekked to a drugstore soda fountain and conjured just the right recipe of words to define a cheeseburger for a hungry American public. "It's a doughty bit combining grilled hamburger and melted American cheese served on a soft bun and tasty enough to ensnare even the one-cylinder appetite." Mari Tomasi delineates ravioli, the "most popular of Italian dishes," those "diminutive derbies of pastry, the crowns stuffed with a well-seasoned meat paste."

Spaghetti supper at Grape Festival, Tontitown, Arkansas, Aug. 16, 1941. Writers and photographers for the America Eats projects captured eclectic scenes across the nation, from Texas up to Vermont and the Atlantic to the Pacific. Granger/World Projects Administration/Library of Congress hide caption

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Granger/World Projects Administration/Library of Congress

Spaghetti supper at Grape Festival, Tontitown, Arkansas, Aug. 16, 1941. Writers and photographers for the America Eats projects captured eclectic scenes across the nation, from Texas up to Vermont and the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Granger/World Projects Administration/Library of Congress

What Kellock envisioned in America Eats was a chronicle of coast-to-coast cooking that would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. She instructed writers to cultivate stories that were "light but not tea shoppe, masculine not feminine," hoping to propel food writing out from the pages of women's magazines and into the national spotlight. As author Begin chronicles, Kellock "wanted to create a book that would be read in the living room—-not one that would be used in the kitchen."

Final copy for America Eats was due from field writers to their regional offices by Thanksgiving Day, 1941. But two weeks after the deadline, as Kellock poured over eclectic scenes of culinary Americana, narratives that stretched from Texas up to Vermont and the Atlantic to the Pacific, her radio sounded with the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

The story of how America shared food from harvest to table, from ritual to restaurant booth, was abruptly overshadowed by the more pressing reality of war. Unfinished papers were hastily shuffled into cardboard boxes, abandoned forever. America Eats, like a meal untouched, simply just grew cold.