"America Eats: On the Road with the WPA"

A writer takes her own journey to update the WPA's guide to America's eating habits.

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In the late 1930s, under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government commissioned out-of-work writers and artists to document the country’s distinct regions without undermining the notion of a unified America.

Known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), some projects – such as Walker Evans’s and Dorothea Lang’s iconic farm photographs – have been burned into our cultural memory.

But the America Eats! project, which documented regional events where food was served, had been largely relegated to archives and library basements until contemporary writers – Pat Willard among them – unearthed them.

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The original America Eats! sent professional and ordinary citizens to barbecues, tea socials, church dinners, and county fairs. Willard organizes their stories by region and by theme – celebrations, mourning events, and national holidays.

She does not dwell on the historical circumstances, context, or significance of the WPA project. Instead she looks for the modern equivalents of these food gatherings and her travels are the thrust of America Eats! On the Road With the WPA.

Willard visits a wide range of events – everything from a melon festival to a sheepherders ball. In each she offers insight, nostalgia, and musings on the shift in America’s eating and agricultural practices. At times, she revels in her role as an outsider. But Willard is most at home in cities, where, for instance, she describes New York’s McSorley’s Old Ale House with the knowing eye of a local.

The tone and scope of the original America Eats! project vary considerably in the 50 or so passages that Willard has selected. From the Florida Keys, Stetson Kennedy offers a succinct and amusing tutorial on how the “Conch people” eat conch and grunts. The New York office compiled an entertaining glossary of restaurant terms that evokes a bustling group of line cooks. In the Oregon field offices, the description of a crawfish feed is as dry as the eastern part of the state (a “most interesting, if miscellaneous collection of people”).

"America Eats” offers an unfettered view of the lives of ordinary folk, not unlike going out with good friends or long-lost relatives for a taste of country life.

Peter Smith is an intern at the Monitor.

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