Eating America, Retro-Style

If you’ve ever worked as a writer, you’ve probably heard about—and fantasized about working for—the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Writers’ Project. In the ’30s and ’40s, the FWP served as patron for the likes of John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, and spawned the American Guide (pdf file) series of travel books.

Saveur reports this month on America Eats, the great FWP food book that never was (story not available online). Described in the piece as “the most ambitious culinary research project ever attempted in this country,” the book’s goal was nothing less than exhaustively cataloging the clambakes, lutefisk suppers, and chitterling parties that defined populist American cuisine at the time.

The book, shelved as a primordial pile of research in 1941, is due for a couple of upcoming treatments: an anthology of the project’s writings by Mark Kurlansky to be published in 2009, and a contemporary update of the concept also titled America Eats
due out in July by Pat Willard.

For further inspiration, the Saveur writer’s perspective on reading the book’s raw research:

Sitting in the Library of Congress, reading about Coca-Cola socials and cemetery-cleaning picnics, chitterling parties and ladies’ nights at the Kiwanis Club, I felt that I was deep in the pages of a family photo album, encountering relatives I’d never known I had.

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