You can read the first chapter of Willard’s book, free of charge, on Amazon. (America Eats! was one of Amazon’s July picks). But you’ll want to buy the book or check it out of the library, because the rest of it is what I regard as required reading. In particular, the last chapter is one every American interested in sustainable food systems and American food culture, including our federal policy makers, should read.
In it, Willard discusses the role of food in creating community, and how important regional cuisines and what she describes as “plain cooking” are to us. Willard makes a strong argument that it’s not the taste of our food, but how we use it, which has been central to the development of our nation’s cuisine, and perhaps, our community life. She also argues that we accept variations in our cuisine with more grace than others. We’re willing to do it our way, and let others do it their way, too, when it comes to food. Food has been an important point of assimilation in American life, and Willard describes the merging of immigrant and regional dishes in a way that should make anthropologists and sociologists take notice.
We each have our own food allegiances. I was born in Pennsylvania to expatriate Southerners. (And like Willard, while I can’t intellectually rationalize the ingredients of Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple, the mere thought of fried scrapple makes my mouth water). The gatherings of my Southern relatives nearly always included gumbos (chicken and shrimp), ham, cornbread, grits casserole, Ambrosia salad, my grandmother’s Million Dollar fudge, trays of pralines, lemon meringue pie, and Jezebel jelly. Oh, and bottles of Coca Cola pulled (at great risk) from the rusty old pop machine my great-grandfather kept in the barn behind his house. I don’t eat most of these foods now (except corn bread, which we eat at least once a week). But the memories of this food, a yard full of exotic relatives (none of whom I see any more), are some of the clearest, purest memories of my childhood. We each have food memories like this. Food shapes us, not only physically, but culturally.
We are beginning a new chapter in our national life, one that will feature some hard times and some hard choices. We’ll be looking back to our past for clues, and Willard’s book provides some important ones. These harder times, these changing times, conversely, will also provide more opportunities to strengthen our communities. Despite the Great Depression, WPA writers found strong communities. Willard found them, too. Food will, and should, play a central role in this new period in American life.
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