Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America's Food

Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America's Food

by Camille Begin


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During the Depression, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) dispatched scribes to sample the fare at group eating events like church dinners, political barbecues, and clambakes. Its America Eats project sought nothing less than to sample, and report upon, the tremendous range of foods eaten across the United States.
Camille Begin shapes a cultural and sensory history of New Deal-era eating from the FWP archives. From "ravioli, the diminutive derbies of pastries, the crowns stuffed with a well-seasoned paste" to barbeque seasoning that integrated "salt, black pepper, dried red chili powder, garlic, oregano, cumin seed, and cayenne pepper" while "tomatoes, green chili peppers, onions, and olive oil made up the sauce", Begin describes in mouth-watering detail how Americans tasted their food. They did so in ways that varied, and varied widely, depending on race, ethnicity, class, and region. Begin explores how likes and dislikes, cravings and disgust operated within local sensory economies that she culls from the FWP’s vivid descriptions, visual cues, culinary expectations, recipes and accounts of restaurant meals. She illustrates how nostalgia, prescriptive gender ideals, and racial stereotypes shaped how the FWP was able to frame regional food cultures as "American."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252040252
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Series: Studies in Sensory History Series
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Camille Begin is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

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Taste of the Nation

The New Deal Search for America's Food

By Camille Bégin


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-08170-5


America Eats

The Making of a Sensory Archive

America Eats, the Federal Writers' Project's flagship culinary enterprise, was a multisensory search for America's food. The project's goal was to document regional food traditions and "group eating as an important American social institution; its part in development of American cookery as an authentic art and in the preservation of that art." The team of editors who outlined America Eats, led by Katherine Kellock in collaboration with the successive FWP directors Henry Alsberg and John D. Newsom as well as Louisiana director Lyle Saxon, conceived America Eats as a retrospective, and nationally introspective, celebratory book focused on "cookery in the best tradition." They aimed at providing a "detailed picture of the eating habits of the Americans throughout the 48 states in as lively and as amusing a manner as possible." To fulfill this mandate, the federal editors requested that "creative writers" with "a keen interest in sensory perception" be put to work on this project and be careful to "avoid effusive style and the clichés adopted by some writers in food." They noted that "descriptions of food should mention color, odour, and texture, since food appeals to the four senses — sight, sound, taste and smell" while carefully underlining that "the appeal is primarily to the sense of smell for taste can distinguish only between sweet, sour, salty and bitter." Following these guidelines, successful copy from Virginia described how to dress "fluffy and soft" homemade biscuits by inserting "a juicy slice of tender ham" and pouring a "generous amount of red gravy" over it, hence "lifting the magic sandwich to the epitome of palatable grandeur." The author concluded on a high note: "For some — though it is strictly a matter of taste — an even more satisfying manner of eating them is to dunk the ham biscuits into the red gravy, without restraint, inhibition, or shame." Such description aligned with the federal office's vision of America Eats as a comforting, worriless script for American sensory pageantry ready for tourist consumption.

America Eats was a late New Deal attempt at cultural and emotional nation building that set the tone for the patriotic mobilization of American arms, hearts, and senses in the war effort. First evoked in the fall of 1937, the project lingered for a few years before being revived and taking full bloom in the late summer of 1941, only to be interrupted by the U.S. entry into World War II. The culinary narrative developed in America Eats reached for an emotional and sensory past able to soothe the nation in the midst of economic depression and, starting in the early 1940s, to strengthen the citizenry in preparation for war. Svetlana Boym remarks in her study of the modern historical emotion of nostalgia that "the nation-state at best is based on the social contract that is also an emotional contract, stamped by the charisma of the past." The mnemonic and symbolic quality of taste and food facilitated their recruitment as part of the New Deal "emotional contract"; it would provide a visceral, felt nature to national identity. While the New Deal's administration overhaul of the U.S. agricultural food production system was the object of charged debates and protests, the FWP proposed to record rather than change food habits, indeed claimed to safeguard traditions, and could cast its project as apolitical and patriotic. At a time of renewed attacks against Franklin Roosevelt's administration and increasing tension abroad, New Deal food writing aimed at establishing the fleeting act of tasting traditional regional dishes as comforting performances of national identity.

The FWP attempt at compiling regional tastes is emblematic of what historian Alan Trachtenberg identified as the 1930s "search in the everyday life and memories of 'the people' for what was distinctively American." The developing academic fields of anthropology and folklore inspired this search. The federal editors' recurrent mention of the need to unearth regional "eating patterns" signals their familiarity with the innovative work of anthropologists Frank Boas, Ruth Benedict (author of the field-defining Patterns of Culture, 1934), or Margaret Mead, whom they referred to explicitly in the America Eats guidelines. They set out to document a specific sensory, social, and cultural object: "American cookery and the part it has played in the national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes and customs." This project did not necessarily align, or for that matter aim to align, with contemporary social, cultural, and sensory practices linked to food and group meals. When Kellock proclaimed in a 1941 editorial report that the FWP's "job" was "merely to record" the nation's culinary traditions, she also limited the scope of the search: "Neither calories nor vitamins will be mentioned in the book. Geographical factors will be touched on only indirectly. ... Transportation will not be touched on in any way." Given the key roles of transportation networks, especially railroads, and nutrition science in the industrialization of American food-ways since the mid-nineteenth century, this would be a major blind spot of the project, canceling any potential claims for comprehensiveness. Similarly, the sweeping yet imprecise advice to "not give much attention to dishes of recent foreign importation" left many in a liminal space, on the threshold of tradition. The search would be limited.

This chapter focuses on the correspondence and administrative material related to America Eats to probe the cultural and sensory potential as well as the political limits of New Deal food writing. The FWP's pyramidal power hierarchy and administrative setup provoked a dynamic sensory and political dialogue between, on the one hand, educated liberal Washington editors and, on the other, local fieldworkers often with little literary experience. State offices freely interpreted federal guidelines, sometimes mounting sensory, historical, and common-sense resistance against the romanticizing tendencies of the federal office. The northeastern states, for instance, retorted that they could hardly follow the federal guidelines since "the patterns of eating established in the Colonial period persisted until they were affected during the last fifty years by the spread of transportation facilities, improvements in food preparation, the growth of cities and in some cases by the influence of immigrant groups." Scrutinizing the discrepancies between the federal office's top-down instructions and fieldworkers' bottom-up interpretations of editorial guidelines reveals how sensory misunderstandings and clashes shaped the sensory economy of the archive.

Two practical questions with widespread consequences repeatedly emerged in the America Eats correspondence. Who was to have the authority to determine a dish's traditional standing and regional authenticity? Whose cuisine would be deemed worthy of inclusion in the American sensory past, and how would local multiethnic, syncretic tastes be integrated into the America Eats project? These were not questions the federal editors had aimed to raise, but such matters quickly became the main topic of their correspondence with the state offices. The various FWP administrative units never ceased to debate what the term "American" meant, whom it encompassed, and therefore whose food America Eats would record, memorialize, and stamp as "American" and "regional." Several answers competed. A focus on Anglo-Saxon heritage was regularly upstaged by a "contribution school" approach, depicting the slow absorption of specific immigrants' food into the national cuisine. Underneath these narratives laid the reformist potential of the celebration of ethnic and racial sensory diversity as a tool for building "a nation that was modern and stronger because it was both more pluralistic and more integrated." No definite editorial and ideological line was settled on, and the America Eats archive reveals the FWP's vexed attempts at drawing a consensual "composite picture" of American taste.

The FWP's effort at documenting traditional regional food regulated U.S. past and present sensory economies and policed the sensory borders of the nation. To produce an orderly and cohesive narrative out of the aggregate of local tastes, the FWP's federal office divided the country into five culinary regions and framed each regional cuisine as contributor to a national cuisine. Once recorded and archived, regional culinary histories and taste profiles would be reproducible and consumable on demand, providing a common sensory ground in a time of domestic and international political strife. In searching for the remnant of America's pre-industrial regional tastes, the FWP simultaneously recorded, invented, and prescribed culinary traditions. To explore how editorial choices regulated sensory economies, and especially the economy of the senses within the America Eats archive, this chapter answers Ann Laura Stoler's call to consider archives as "both a corpus of statements and a depot of documents, both sites of the imaginary and institutions that fashioned histories as they concealed, revealed, and contradicted the investments of the state." Considered as both a repository and an object of study, the America Eats archive makes visible some of the mechanisms behind the production of sensory knowledge by the New Deal state. Divergent views on what it meant to be sensorially American informed the archive's sensory regime and its textual representation of regional tastes, vexing the federal office's goal to infuse food with moral, cultural, and ultimately economic value. Examining the making of the America Eats archive sheds light on the role of food and the senses in the making of region, race, and gender in the interwar period.

Notes, Essays, Reports: A Tour of the Archive

The America Eats project first appeared in FWP director Henry G. Alsberg's correspondence in 1937, although under the less engrossing title "America Sits Down at Table." At its inception, the project was an endeavor to comfort hungry Americans by imagining a nation of hospitable community meals. As such, it did not gain much traction. Its revival in 1941, under John D. Newsom and Katherine Kellock's leadership, was more successful, and the project became a means of celebrating American exceptionalism in the face of rising European fascist movements and, after Pearl Harbor, an attempt to "be a cultural contribution ... important in deepening the content of patriotism." The entrance of the United States into World War II accelerated the project as the editors felt that its documentary style would appropriately highlight "the rich abundance of ... native foodstuffs, as well as a neglected aspect of ... national culture." The communal ideal of the early years transformed into a consensual blueprint for wartime patriotism. This reflected the evolution of the FWP itself, which, since 1939, had been under the scrutiny of the Dies Committee, precursor of the red-scare-famous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), forcing its revamping. The Dies Committee suspected the project of being a leftist hotbed (which some urban units such as the New York branch were) but also of "boondoggling," a period term that combined inefficiency, incompetence, and irrelevance — the America Eats innovative yet unusual and, for the time, frivolous focus on food being a case in point. The new incarnation of the agency took on the name of the Writers' Program and distanced itself from its predecessor's ambitious goal of weaving together a pluralistic chronicle of the nation's history and culture. This overhauling of the agency triggered the transformation of, in historian Jerrold Hirsch's words, a "liberal and reformist view of American culture" into "the basis of a new and ultimately conservative national consensus." When the Writers' Program was eventually recast as the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942, the America Eats project finally ended to "clear the way for work on Army Camp guides, which [each] State [was] asked to prepare for a national series." The production of sensory knowledge taking place in the America Eats archive over these eventful five years propelled the advent of a patriotic culinary narrative that bridged change and consensus.

The files conserved at the Library of Congress constitute the most complete records of the America Eats project. The collection consists of different kinds of material. First, the "administrative material" is composed of the book proposal, memos, and editorial guidelines sent by the federal editors to the state offices in order to explain the anticipated content of the volume. These instructions are authorless but were in all probability written by Katherine Kellock, who was "in charge of the undertaking" in the federal office. The Columbia University–educated editor had been with the FWP for several years by the time the agency undertook the project, notably overseeing with an iron fist the "motorized tours" sections of the American Guide Series. In his memoir, former FWP staffer Jerre Mangione describes Kellock as a "small tornado of a woman whose voice seemed to alternate between the sounds of scolding and laughter," and who put an almost religious fervor in her work. Throughout her tenure at the FWP, she built on her social-work training, reformist impetus, and progressive understanding of American history to make "the nation appear crowded with monuments to the efforts of ordinary Americans, contributors to their country's progress." Like many in the Washington office, she proposed a democratic and inclusive view of the nation based on cultural pluralism, although this framework regularly failed to "include the oppressed" in particular southern blacks. The America Eats guidelines were further explained and detailed in the second set of material in the America Eats collection: the correspondence between the federal editors and the states' offices, a correspondence that often documents misunderstandings between the two main administrative levels of the FWP. Third, the bulk of the collection consists of essays on local cuisines and traditions written by fieldworkers in each state and often left unsigned. These local essays were filed under "notes, essays, reports" and organized by state. The size of the state files varies greatly, from empty or inexistent, in the case of eight states (Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Nevada, South Dakota, and West Virginia) and two anticipated culinary regions (New York City and Northern California), to hundreds of pages, in the case of Virginia or Texas. In the federal office's vision for the project, these local essays would constitute the raw data for the completion of the five regional essays ("section essays") and, ultimately, the overarching national culinary narrative. Drafts of these essays represent the fourth kind of material in the collection. A few pictures, conserved in the Prints and Photographs Department, were taken especially for the project; most are reproduced in this book.

The federal editors envisioned the book as essays on the Northeast, the South, the Southwest, the Middle West, and the Far West, published under the homogenizing title America Eats. One state per region would serve as a regional editing unit and would pick and choose among the state essays to write a blended regional narrative. The federal office asked the director of the Louisiana office, Lyle Saxon, to take on a leading role in editing material from the South to be sent to the four other regional offices as an example of the work required for the regional essays. This choice reflected the culinary reputation of Saxon's home city of New Orleans and the South in general as well as Saxon's writing abilities. Saxon's version of the American past was ambiguous, though: his romanticization of Louisiana's pre–Civil War "golden age" was balanced only by his keen interest in African American folklore. He was only half successful in his attempt at a master regional narrative. Kellock remarked in a January 1942 editorial memo on his contribution that, "each of the fragments is well handled, but the total effect is that of a patternless patchwork." The five section essays were at various stages of completion when the project was abandoned and its papers archived. The South proposed a piecemeal narrative opening with an account of the cross-racial taste for chitterlings but then casting "Negroes" solely as servants, slaves, and hawkers. The politics of race in the region curtailed a fully blended essay. The Northeast essay stretched from New England settlers' cookery to late-nineteenth-century food fads and the introduction of fruit salad "anchored in sweet glue" (also known as Jell-O); it included descriptions of hotel banquets and New York City's multiethnic tastes. The Southwest and Far West essays, authored by Arthur J. Brooks and Edward B. Reynolds, respectively, proposed masculinist accounts of culinary pioneering. Brooks highlighted the "gusto" of southwestern barbecues and "redolent" Mexican food, while Reynolds celebrated the "creative ability" of male cooks so that local diets were not, contrary to popular belief, presented as entirely composed of "fried beans, baked beans, boiled beans and just beans." They clearly set the tone: "Here you will find no lacy frills to catch the eye, or subtle nuances of taste and smell to goad the appetite of the jaded and world-weary gastronome." The Middle West essay, attributed to Nelson Algren, was titled "A Short History of American Diet." "Wrong," wrote a federal editor in the margin: "This was supposed to be a study of group eating" — a study of the nation's folkloric asset, not of its dieting fads. The essay was, however, one of the most accomplished and went on to describe the Middle West as a "land of mighty breakfast" and multiple cuisines. It concluded with the grand and pluralistic but ultimately vague declaration: "Many foods, many nations. Yet one food, one nation. Many lands, one land." The federal office would have ultimately been judge of the accuracy, relevance, and literary value of the regional essays.


Excerpted from Taste of the Nation by Camille Bégin. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Sensing Food in the New Deal Era 1

1 America Eats: The Making of a Sensory Archive 18

2 Romance of the Homemade 45

3 Tasting Place, Sensing Race 74

4 An American Culinary Heritage? Mexican Food in the Southwest 100

5 A "Well-Filled Melting Pot" 129

Conclusion: How Taste Is Made 154

Notes 161

Bibliography 199

Index 215

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