Q&A with Taste of the Nation author Camille Bégin

begin3Camille Bégin is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She answered some questions about her book Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America’s Food.

Q: What was the goal of Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) when it came to documenting how people eat?

Camille Bégin: In most FWP projects, documenting food was only incidental. Some of the FWP’s most well-known projects were folklore studies and guidebooks for states and cities. Historians can glean a lot of food and sensory information from these, but it was not their main focus. Yet, through these projects, the Washington-based editors realized that food was a topic worthy of attention and they developed a food-focused project.

That project was American Eats. Its goals evolved as it developed, between 1941 and 1942. The one thing that stayed constant is that the editors knew they did not want to produce a cookbook. The goal was not for the book to be used in the kitchen, but read in the living room. Their examples were tourist guidebooks, not cookbooks. It was to be an entertaining read rather than a pedagogical one. They insisted on this throughout the project because many of the state-based contributors kept sending in recipes. At first, the goal of America Eats was to write what we would now identify as a sociological, or anthropological, account of American foodways and taste. The editors were inspired by recent anthropological breakthrough and were looking for “patterns of eating.” They wanted the essays to be descriptive, precise, and sensorial—as we would expect to find in today’s food writing. They understood food as part of culture and wanted to show the uniqueness of the American table, especially towards Europe. This last goal became more and more important as the project grew. With the looming involvement of the country into World War II, America Eats, while keeping its entertaining tone, became much more about strengthening patriotism. Writers from western states such as Texas or Wyoming latched on this new goal, celebrating the meat-heavy, masculine character of their diets. Food fit for a nation at war. Of course, this was before wartime food rationing began.

Q: Was there a food that was thought of as “American” before this project got underway?

Bégin: Regional American foodways were clearly identified; cookbooks on Southern food or Pennsylvania Dutch cooking were popular for instance. Mexican food was strongly associated with the Southwest, though not fully understood as a regional American food yet. The concept of Tex-Mex did not exist in the period. Some industrial food, hot dogs and canned fruits in particular, had started to be popular nationwide. The editors who set up the project were aware of the regional characters of American foodways and divided the book in five regions. They were planning on documenting food events such as clambakes in the Northeast, thresher dinners in the Midwest, church picnics in the South.

The trickier question then is: was there a national cuisine? The FWP effort at documenting regional foodways needs to be put back in a larger historiography on the creation of national cuisines around the world. National cuisines, French or Italian for instance, are political, cultural, sensory and historical artifacts that very often rely on the codification of regional foodways as contributing part to a national cuisine. This process was underway in France and Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century, in the mid-20th century, countries such as Mexico or Japan witnessed it. And I would argue, this is what was starting to happen in the US with a project like America Eats. Now, what the editors had not foreseen was the extent to which immigrant foods, what we would call “ethnic food,” were woven into regional eating habits and tastes. Throughout the America Eats essays, writers and editors grappled with the fact that Italian, Greek or Chinese food could not be considered the food of migrant enclave communities anymore, but were American food, and often, American regional food. In period during which legal definitions and vernacular understandings of race and ethnicity were fast evolving, this caused a lot of confusion. Would the Tontitown, Arkansas, Italian community habit of having spaghetti and fried dinner for their annual grape festival dinner be reported on in the essay of Southern foodways?

Q: What sort of effect the Depression itself have on the way Americans would eat?

Bégin: Well, the first thing to say is that FWP material, and America Eats in particular, are not good sources to answer this question. Despite their sociological and anthropological goals, the FWP avoided this topic, in fact outright banned it for America Eats. We can find clues though. For instance, many essays documented community dinners put together to raise money and feed the community at a cheap price. “Fun feeds,” “school picnics,” “box-dinners” are good examples. For box-dinners, each girl would make dinner for two, put it in a box, and the boxes would be auctioned off. The buyer would have dinner with the cook. We can also track the rise of canned food and supermarkets. Because they relied on bulk buying and had fewer employees, supermarkets could lower prices and expanded during the Depression. Overall, America Eats is not an adequate source to study the nutritional impact of the Depression on Americans and how they made do in hard time. That the editors in Washington proscribed reporting on the impact of the Depression on American foodways is consistent with some of the project’s goals. They wanted to find and report on the core of American food culture, independent of economic downturns, health advices and dietary fads. That started to change at the end of the project, but because of wartime restriction, not the Depression.

Q: Did the FWP writers bring in any cultural stereotypes in the way they wrote about food?

Bégin: Absolutely. A large part of my argument in the book is an effort at unraveling race and gender stereotypes to understand what they reveal about the role of the senses in shaping social and cultural differences. For instance, sensory stereotypes about African Americans were commonplace and the FWP material includes disparaging comments about their allegedly coarse or unrefined taste.  Such comments obscure the role of systemic discrimination and class in shaping foodways and taste. They also reveal that the color line was not only visual but also felt through the entire sensorium. Digging deeper into the sensory stereotypes of the period also shows that things were far from straightforward. Imposing a black and white visual color line meant that the other senses regularly crossed racial and gender lines. We have to feel our way through the sources to get a fuller picture. For instance, in the South, the stereotype that considered that African Americans’ tastes were animalistic, close to nature, could be deployed to explain that they were the best cooks, apt at satisfying white taste buds. Their alleged debased nature made them superior cooks, uncorrupted by the evil of nutrition science and industrial food.

I spend time in the book analyzing photographs of Americans preparing food. These visual sources open up a world of sensory interactions around touch, smell, and taste across race and gender divide that written sources only hint at.

Photographs also get at another aspect of how cultural stereotypes function and that is romanticization. This is particularly noticeable in material from the Southwest describing Mexican American taste and foodways. Although a small number of Spanish-speakers participated to America Eats, most essays on Mexican food describe a tasty, spicy cuisine worth trying for the thrill and as a demonstration of manliness. Mexican Americans are, in these descriptions, standing apart from the speed of modern life, a romantic and colorful backdrop to American progress.

Q: What happened to the America Eats project as the FWP ended?

Bégin: The federal office tried to keep the project going for as long as they could, but in 1942, the Federal Writers’ Project was re-cast at the Office of War Information and the project ended. In the last few months, the editors pushed for state material to be finalized and the project to be completed. Most states sent in their material to Washington in the fall and winter of 1941-1942. When the FWP closed, the bulk of the material had made its way to Washington and was sent to the Library of Congress, where it is still. Some of the essays stayed in regional repositories, the Municipal Archives of New York and Montana State University for instance have America Eats material. Montana State University digitized and made accessible its material online after I finished the book- go explore it here. Michigan State University is also planning a large digitization project around the America Eats collection under the title What America Ate.

The Municipal Archives of New York have material linked to a local spin-off of America Eats entitled Feeding the City, which I also explore in the book. It is precious because America Eats—because of its set-up—is skewed towards documenting rural areas and tells us little about cities. To get at urban foodways in the 1930s, I used other FWP material, Feeding the City and the American Guide Series books.

Q: Was America Eats still influential on how American food was viewed and how Americans would write about food?

Bégin: The America Eats project was more or less forgotten for close to four decades but its relevance to Americans today is becoming more and more evident. The book never made it into print, few of the FWP workers who wrote pieces for the project mentioned their participation—food was not yet considered a worthy topic. The growing popularity of the work of writers such as MFK Fisher, Clementine Paddleford or Waverley Root started to change this perception in the postwar era and we now live in a world pretty much obsessed with food writing. The firsts to be interested in America Eats after its demise were folklorists. Charles Camp used America Eats extensively in his 1978 dissertation, arguing that it was a key source for folklorist and historians studying American foodways. Historians came later, with the work of Donna Gabaccia and Harvey Levenstein for instance. More recently, Mark Kurlansky published an edited collection of some of the essays. This rediscovery of the project only goes to show the pioneering aspect of the FWP work, both in form and content. What was one of the less known of the FWP project is emerging as one of its most cherished. The FWP was 70 years ahead of its time with its celebration of local, homemade fare and sensuous food writing. It’s a food writing classic.


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