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Monday, January 26, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: AMERICA EATS! (Bloomsbury, 2008; distr. Raincoast, 207 pages

AMERICA EATS! (Bloomsbury, 2008; distr. Raincoast, 207 pages, ISBN
978-1-59691-362-2, $25.99 US hard covers) is by Pat Willard, a food
book writer ("Pie Every Day", "A Soothing Broth", and "Secrets of
Saffron"). The WPA (Works Progress Administration) had a project for
unemployed writers during the Depression -- the Federal Writers'
Project. The FWP produced local histories, nature guides, state
travelogues, and oral histories. Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty, and Saul
Bellow were all thus employed.  In one sub-project, writers and
photographers were asked to find out how America ate. They were told to
produce "an account of 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 in the face of mass
production of foodstuff and partly cooked foods and introduction of
numerous technological devices that lessen labor of preparation but
lower quality of the product." The project was "America Eats!", and
there were to be NO recipes. The vision was for stories about local
events where food was to be served: fund-raisers, religious gatherings,
dinners at Elks Lodges, tea socials, church suppers, family reunions,
rodeos, state agricultural fairs, harvest festivals, hobo camps, et al.
This was all about the "importance of social gatherings that glorify
the non-professional cook and keep traditional cookery alive." Willard
pulls it all together with transcripts, commentaries and personal re-
visits. She does contribute 25 recipes, some from her own family and
some from named sources such as Eudora Welty's Beaten Biscuits. The
project ceased in 1943, especially because the war effort reduced
community gatherings and the feel of celebration. The material was
boxed up and shipped to the Library of Congress, but not all was
completed or available. Some manuscripts are in state archives or
private hands, or even destroyed. Material was scattered over the five
regions that were covered. The stories were never published – until
now. A fascinating read. 
Audience and level of use: culinary historians.
Some interesting or unusual facts: Most of the historical photos are
from the Library of Congress, although there are two from the original
mss. in the archives.
The upside to this book: there is an index, plus a separate listing of
the recipes. A fascinating read.
Quality/Price Rating: 90.

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