(Legionnaire picnic, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937)
A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called America Eats! On the Road With the WPA: The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food (Bloomsbury Press). I know. That’s a mouth full but it describes the contents pretty accurately. It was about a project the writers in the WPA’s Federal Writers Administrations worked on in the late 1930s that tried to explain what exactly was American food. To do this, the writers trooped to all kinds of community meals—church suppers, political barbecues, county fairs, family reunions to name a few. Holiday gatherings, of course, were covered and it is surprising how different these celebrations were across the country, different in style and the dishes that were served. The photos here were taken at the same time by photographers in a similar federal program. Together the programs started the careers of some of our best artists.
(Dessert at a town dinner, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1939)
What I did was travel around the country to the same places the writers did. I wanted to see how much had changed or if things had stayed the same. It took me a little more than a year and a lot of eating—giving new meaning to packing it on. What I discovered was that the pies and stews; the pigs turned on spits or smoked in pits; the chickens simmered with vegetables and served with biscuits; and all the cakes and cookies and sweet tea, lemonade and beer that is served from Maine to New Mexico was a lot like back then.
The one thing we don’t do as much is gather together as a community. I’m pretty much a loner but even I found this a shame. Because the truth of the matter is, American cooking was forged from the necessity to support each other while we tried to establish a home in a vast and lonely country.
(Barbecuing, Greene County, George, 1939)
So today, if you draw together around a table with family, friends and neighbors, know you are upholding a tradition that has made us whole. The country goes through hard times, as it did when America Eats! was first being composed. Sometimes we feel everything is going to rack and ruin, but somehow we eventually right ourselves. What remains steady is our food that is as complex in its lineage and its ability to unite us all.
Happy Fourth, everyone! Pile on the plates!
(This is me with 2 Illinois farmers at the best restaurant on Rt 36)