Plains Folk

America Eats


Food fights are rather rare occurrences. When people sit down to eat together-particularly if they first share in the preparation of the food-it is likely to lead to cordial feelings of community. That was the premise of a national project of the late 1930s, recently retrieved from the files and brought to light.

Food author Pat Willard, a New Yorker, found the records of the “America Eats!” project in the Library of Congress. She studied them, and then set out across America to rediscover the sort of culinary experiences documented in the old files. The result is the book, America Eats! On the Road with the WPA: The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food.

The “WPA” in the title stands for Works Progress Administration, the federal agency that put the unemployed to work during the Great Depression. Unemployed writers got jobs in the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project. The writers’ project produced guidebooks for the individual states and many special projects, such as “America Eats!” The purpose of this special project was to highlight community food traditions-not just foods, but food events that brought people together.

The WPA writers did imperfect work. One described how the preparers of catfish for frying “removed the scales by scraping with a dull knife.” I’m thinking the local people saw the writer-guy coming on that one.

Likewise, the new compiler, Willard, sometimes distracts from the stories with her squeamishness (What’s wrong with eating squirrel, anyway?) and her tendency to get off the subject. She says she is looking for food traditions today that, if not quite the same as those of the 1930s, have the same spirit. Sometimes it’s hard to see the connection.

Getting back to the original question, though, it’s worth reading the book in order to consider whether there is something going on at these food events besides just filling stomachs.

If you’re from the prairies, you have to be familiar with, and likely have participated in, food events such as are described in the book. I think of the annual Saddle Mountain (Oklahoma) Volunteer Fire Department mountain oyster feed, likewise the yearly Grandin (North Dakota) Volunteer Fire Department Smelt Fry. Or the Lutheran fish fry I worked on as a boy in Ellinwood, Kansas, and the hundreds of fall suppers that feed multitudes up and down the plains every year. I’m thinking that if the prairies are a fair representation of America, then community food traditions are as vital as ever.

This book makes the argument, though, that the Great Depression actually encouraged neighborly customs of feeding one another and making the process into community entertainment. I’m skeptical.
If Willard is right, and if with increasing prosperity in more recent decades, community food traditions have faltered, then we have lost something important. She argues that without a “tradition of community meals” we become a “country of strangers.” Likely that’s true. It’s just that in my part of the country, the well-fed plains in the middle of America, I think we still know how to set up and cook for hundreds of neighbors, or would-be neighbors.
That’s all for now. I have a crock of sauerkraut I need to attend to.

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