When someone says to me, "I went to Chicago last week" or "I went down to Virginia this summer," a question always comes into my mind, though I often resist asking it: "What did you eat? Anything interesting?"
I would like to know what politicians eat on the campaign trail, what Picasso ate in his pink period, what Walt Whitman ate while writing the verse that defined America, what midwesterners bring to potlucks, what is served at company banquets, what is in a Sunday dinner these days, and what workers bring for lunch. What people eat is not well documented. Food writers prefer to focus on fashionable, expensive restaurants whose creative dishes reflect little of what most people are eating. We know everything about Paris restaurants but nothing about what Parisians eat. We know little about what Americans eat and less about what they ate.
A few years ago, while putting together Choice Cuts, an anthology of food writing, I discovered to my amazement that government bureaucrats in Washington in the late 1930s were having similar thoughts. But these were not typical bureaucrats because they worked for an agency that was unique in American history, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The WPA was charged with finding work for millions of unemployed Americans. It sought work in every imaginable field. For unemployed writers the WPA created the Federal Writers' Project, which was charged with conceiving books, assigning them to huge, unwieldy teams of out-of-work and want-to-be writers around the country, and editing and publishing them.
After producing hundreds of guidebooks on America in a few hurried years, a series that met with greater success than anyone had imagined possible for such a government project, the Federal Writers' Project administrators were faced with the daunting challenge of coming up with projects to follow their first achievements. Katherine Kellock, the writer-turned-administrator who first conceived the idea for the guidebooks, came up with the thought of a book about the varied food and eating traditions throughout America, an examination of what and how Americans ate.
She wanted the book to be enriched with local food disagreements, and it included New England arguments about the correct way to make clam chowder, southern debate on the right way to make a mint julep, and an absolute tirade against mashed potatoes from Oregon. It captured now nearly forgotten food traditions such as the southern New England May breakfast, foot washings in Alabama, Coca- Cola parties in Georgia, the chitterling strut in North Carolina, cooking for the threshers in Nebraska, a Choctaw funeral, and a Puget Sound Indian salmon feast. It also had old traditional recipes such as Rhode Island jonny cakes, New York City oyster stew, Georgia possum and taters, Kentucky wilted lettuce, Virginia Brunswick stew, Louisiana tête de veau, Florida conch, Minnesota lutefisk, Indiana persimmon pudding, Utah salmi of wild duck, and Arizona menudo. Ethnic food was covered, including black, Jewish, Italian, Bohemian, Basque, Chicano, Sioux, Chippewa, and Choctaw. Local oddities, such as the Automat in New York, squirrel Mulligan in Arkansas, Nebraska lamb fries or Oklahoma prairie oysters, and& ten-pound Puget Sound clams, were featured. Social issues were remembered, as in the Maine chowder with only potatoes, the Washington State school lunch program, and the western Depression cake. There was also humor to such pieces, as the description of literary teas in New York, the poem "Nebraskans Eat the Weiners," and the essay on trendy food in Los Angeles.