Friday, July 25, 2008

Pg. 99: Pat Willard's "America Eats!"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Pat Willard's America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA-The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin' Feasts that Define Real American Food.

About the book, from the publisher:
What the Sterns did for road food, Pat Willard does for festive American group eating in this exploration of our national cuisine, with a never-before-published WPA manuscript as her guide.

In America Eats! Pat Willard takes readers on a journey into the regional nooks and crannies of American cuisine where WPA writers—including Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren, among countless others—were dispatched in 1935 to document the roots of our diverse culinary cuisine. With the unpublished WPA manuscript as her guide, Willard visits the sites of American food’s past glory to rediscover the vibrant foundation of America’s traditional cuisine. She visits a booyah cook-off in Minnesota, a political feast in Mississippi, a watermelon festival in Oklahoma, and a sheepherders ball in Idaho, to name a few. Featuring recipes and never-before-seen photos, including those from the WPA by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott, America Eats! is a glowing celebration of American food, past and present.
Among the early praise for the book:
"America Eats! originated as a 1935 WPA project that sent out-of-work writers (mostly unknowns, but also some soon-to-be famous names like Eudora Welty and Ralph Ellison) to chronicle America's regional cuisine, focusing on the group-dining dynamic of church suppers, harvest festivals, state fairs, political rallies, lodge suppers, and any gathering where food took center stage--"In a nation inhabited by strangers, sharing a meal lessened the loneliness of wandering across unfamiliar landscapes." While bits and pieces of their work saw the light of day over the years, the project was never completed or published and was filed away in the Library of Congress like a culinary Ark of the Covenant until Brooklyn-based food writer Pat Willard used this national artifact as a roadmap for her own coast-to-coast tour to see if these traditions still exist (many, sadly, are long gone) and offer a contemporary update on the WPA's original observations. Sprinkled throughout with heirloom recipes (Root Beer, Pickled Watermelon Rinds, Chess Pie, Son-of-Gun Stew) and never-before-published vintage photos, America Eats! is a celebration of our nation's table and a welcome addition to the popular food lit genre. "It's nice to report that, when a community need arises, we're still inspired as a nation to pull out a big pot and start throwing into it a lot of ingredients, with the understanding that sharing a large batch of something delicious with neighbors and strangers alike is a fine and proper way to accomplish some good."
--Brad Thomas Parsons
, Amazon Best of the Month, July 2008

"The original America Eats! was written for the WPA by out-of-work writers during the Depression of the 1930s as an account of group eating as an important American social institution, the development of local, traditional cookery by churches and communities, fairs, festivals, rodeos, fund-raisers, rent parties and the like. It was never completed or published, but when food writer Willard (Secrets of Saffron) found the manuscript in the Library of Congress, she decided to follow the footsteps of the original writers to find what remained of these feasts, or a modern equivalent. The result is an interesting anthology of original WPA writing (most by unknowns, but often lively) and contemporary experience. Willard found Brunswick Stew (historically made with squirrel meat) in North Carolina and Virginia as well as versions of it in Minnesota (booya) and Kentucky (burgoo). Recipes (not always with squirrel) are given. There are still Melon Days in Colorado and Oklahoma, and an Apple Week in Washington State. Fewer homes have kitchen gardens now, and some fair food is distinctly modern (fried Twinkies), but Willard did find a wild-game dinner in Oregon and, of course, barbecue everywhere. Where there were once tobacco farms in traditionally dry Southern counties, Willard, in this engaging book, finds vineyards."
--Publishers Weekly

Willard "laments the differences between the WPA era and our own—the homogenization of our cities and the decline of home cooking—but her prose nonetheless rings with the poetry of American optimism. To the doomsayers who warn that the Golden Arches will soon erase the last vestiges of regional American cuisine, she says, 'I'm not a bubble-headed fool, I knew I'd encounter mountains of fried foodstuff and streams of rehydontrated, reconstituted, and carbonized concentrated something or other. But I was also dead certain I'd find plenty of goodness, too.' She did."
--Sarah Karnasiewicz, Saveur
Read an excerpt from America Eats!, and learn more about the author and her work at Pat Willard's website and her blog.

Pat Willard's books about food include: Pie Every Day, sited by Atlantic Monthly, Bon Appetit, and, as among the top ten cookbooks of 1997; A Soothing Broth (1999), about old recipes to feed the sick; and Secrets of Saffron, nominated as "Best Literary Cookbook in 2002" by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The Page 99 Test: America Eats!.

--Marshal Zeringue