Like one of the BBQ meals described in its pages, America Eats! by Pat Willard is tasty and completely satisfying. It’s a timely book, too: not only because of the material’s origin as a New Deal project (which the nation’s current economic situation has all of us thinking and talking about), but because of the growing interest in American food culture and sustainable food systems.
This book really represents two writing projects: It incorporates extensive pieces of regional manuscripts produced during 1930s by the Works Progress Administration with contemporary observations by Willard, who attempted to follow the footsteps of the original WPA authors to discover what remained of the food culture they described, or what corresponded in contemporary experience.
As such, the text weaves back and forth, past and present, an unknown WPA writer, then Willard’s contemporary account. Pay close attention: you won’t want to miss a bite…er, word. One minute I was reading a report from the WPA’s Oregon Office about wild hogs in cane-break, circa the Great Depression. A paragraph later I was learning about modern residents of Oregon, the Erickson family, (who live south of Portland) and their wild fallow deer herd.
The original WPA America Eats! project was produced by unemployed writers during the Great Depression. The goal was not to collect recipes, per se, but to understand food and eating as part of American social and cultural life, and to document the development of local cuisine and customs. (There are some recipes in the book, but not all are precise and usable).
The stories written by WPA writers were slices of life: local events where food was served. These included – but weren’t limited to – political, church and community events; religious revivals; teas; fairs; family reunions; rodeos; harvest festivals; national holidays; and memorials. Likely due to their prevalence during the Depression, the food and cultural life of hobo encampments was even included on the list. WPA writers were generally unknown, but many became famous (including Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow).
The original WPA project was incredibly ambitious, and was divided into five geographical regions. Willard has provided a truly great service by producing this book, because the original America Eats! was never published. With WWII looming, the program was eventually discontinued. While the Library of Congress has some of the holdings, others are spread throughout the United States, and some of the original materials have been destroyed or lost altogether. Willard’s work in highlighting the original project has brought to the fore important observations about American food culture that should inform our lives – and public policy – today.
This book celebrates American cuisine, and the diverse cultural and geographical elements that influenced it. Willard argues that while America is a young cuisine in contrast to that of other nations, it suffers from no “poverty” of heritage. The accounts of social life (past and present), and the food presented at these occasions, clearly demonstrate that American cuisine developed – and continues to develop – as a result of what Willard terms “unprecedentedly varied cultural influences,” among other factors, including necessity and “contrasting agendas.”