LIANE HANSEN, host.
The way Americans eat has been influenced by some bold-faced culinary names, James Beard, Alice Waters, Julia Child. But there is one name that, until now, has been relegated to the pantry of history, Clementine Paddleford. But how could someone with a name like that be forgotten? Here to tell us about her and her contribution to America's cuisine is Kelly Alexander. Alexander won a James Beard award for journalism for her feature writing on Paddleford and is the co-author of a new biography of her called "Hometown Appetites." She joins us from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Welcome to the program.
Ms. KELLY ALEXANDER (Author, "Hometown Appetites"): Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: Can you give us just a short thumbnail sketch of Clementine?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Ah, yes. Clementine Paddleford was, most notably, the food editor of the New York Herald Tribune and This Week magazine in the '50s and '60s. And as a result of that, she traveled all around the country and, indeed, around the world in search of great recipes from home cooks.
HANSEN: She was born on a farm in Kansas. What effect did her upbringing on a farm have on her work?
Ms. ALEXANDER: To be honest with you, it would be impossible to overstate how important where she was from was. She grew up with a mother who was everything to her. The kind of woman who worked on the farm, cooked a homemade dinner for her family every night and really stressed the importance of meals. Growing up in that kind of tradition, informed everything about Clementine Paddleford's life because there was no need to explain to her the majesty of family mealtime, she lived it. She knew where food came from, she knew how it got to the table, and she knew it was the key to a happy family life. So her sort of goal was to kind of take that knowledge that she learned on the farm and spread it around the world. And she did a pretty good job.
HANSEN: How did her writing style differ from others who were writing about food at the time?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Before Clementine, what you mostly had were home economists who put recipes in newspapers, on the newspaper pages, and very little else. So, during a time when you had the kind of breakdown of the oral tradition and recipes and what I mean by that is, you know, a mother handing a recipe to her daughter and people sharing recipes over their picket fences, that was changing when Clementine started writing about food. And the way it was changing is that newspapers published recipes, but they were largely subsidized. So you would have, for example, the Armour Meat Company in Chicago who would fund the Chicago's papers' food sections and give you everything, but the ham, sometimes even a coupon for the ham. And Clementine kind of breezed along and started infusing the stories behind the recipes, and it changed food writing entirely. All of a sudden, you had somebody who really understood that there was a story behind the woman at the stove.
HANSEN: Clementine was a pioneer, and she went around and visited people, learned what they were eating, learned how they made it. And to get there, she flew her own plane. She had a piper cub.
Ms. ALEXANDER: She did. She was a flying enthusiast her whole life. She was very interested in airplanes and aviation. But interestingly, she was a person who had almost no sense of direction. But she kept a map on her lap to kind of refer to while she was flying a plane. I mean, she managed to successfully fly herself around the country a number of times. I'm not sure I would have gotten into a plane with her, but it was a private passion, and she was able to combine it with her work and made her life more efficient and more fun.
HANSEN: And so she was able to go to some pretty far flung places that perhaps had food that other parts of the country might not be familiar with.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Oh, definitely. And what I like to stress to people is she wasn't a parachute artist, as journalists say. She isn't somebody who just sort of plunked down and wrote a story and left. She would do things like go on a two-week midwestern tour and spend days in Indianapolis and then days in Cleveland with Jewish bakers learning to how to make hamentashen. She was the first food journalist to visit Hawaii after it became a state, and it seemed so different to everything else that was going on in the country, to be able to be the first person to write about taro, for example. People hadn't heard of that, but Clementine was able to introduce them to it.
HANSEN: There are a lot pictures of her in the book. In all the pictures of her as an adult woman, she's wearing what looks like a choker necklace, but it wasn't jewelry. Explain.
Ms. ALEXANDER: No, it was actually a very clever concealment of a tracheal tube. As a very young woman in her early 30s, Clementine was diagnosed with throat cancer. And she decided to have a very radical surgery, especially at the time, and have her voice box removed. And for the rest of her life, she conducted all interviews and spoke entirely through the voice box in her throat. So, in order to speak she had to press a button. If you can imagine what that must have been like as a journalist, she interviewed thousands of people doing that. And one of the ways that she disarmed them, because her voice was always very strange and hoarse, is by wearing these kind of outlandish costumes. I often refer to it as her Stevie Nicks outfit. Big, giant swirling skirts and capes, gloves, hats and always the choker, which was meant to disarm the voice box.
HANSEN: Hmmm. When she was 62 years old in 1960, she had achieved quite a bit. She was a household name, famous writer, she was rich, she traveled the world, and she thought, what else can I do? And she figured, the next thing that she should do is go on a submarine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yes, Clementine boarded the U.S.S. Skipjack which was, at that time, the fastest nuclear submarine in the world. And it was in the harbor in New London, Connecticut. Her whole idea for that started with the idea of a column called, "What men eat on submarines." So she found out about the Skipjack, she spent several years getting permission and clearances to board it. And she spent the day with the cook figuring out what they cooked and ate. She wrote about how they stored orange juice crystals, how they made brownies to feed a hundred man a day. It was really kind of an exciting assignment.
HANSEN: Yeah, but, you know, she got a little criticism for it. I mean, they called her loopy. They thought it was a publicity stunt.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Yeah, the main detraction on her is that her writing is very florid. It's very over the top, you know. A shrimp isn't a shrimp, it's a pink comma hanging off a glass. And in the Skipjack column, there's almost a breathlessness about it. Here I am on this submarine, and it's the most exciting thing in the world, pinch me. And that kind of quality, that kind of earnestness, you just don't find it very much nowadays.
HANSEN: So what do you think her lasting effect has been on the way America eats?
Ms. ALEXANDER: Although she is only now beginning to be credited for it, she was the first person who really recognized regional American food as a concept. Before Clementine, there was no clear definition of what American food was. There were immigrants who brought their food traditions here, but they were always considered French food or Spanish food or what have you. Clementine came along and said, you know, Hungarian Goulash is as American as Hungarian if it's made in Cleveland, for example. She didn't use the cliche term melting pot, but she was able to say American food is a melting pot of everything that we've come from, made with ingredients here. And now, she's actually beginning to be recognized for that, now that you hear the term regional American food all over the place, you can know where it came from.
HNASEN: Kelly Alexander is co-author with Cynthia Harris of the book "Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, The Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate." Alexander joined us from WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Thank you.
Ms. ALEXANDER: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.