During the Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) dispatched scribes to sample the fare at group eating events like church dinners, political barbecues, and clambakes. Its America Eats project sought nothing less than to sample, and report upon, the tremendous range of foods eaten across the United States.
Writers, a demographic known for going hungry even when the economy works properly, threw themselves into the pursuit with gusto. From “ravioli, the diminutive derbies of pastries, the crowns stuffed with a well-seasoned paste” to barbeque seasoning that integrated “salt, black pepper, dried red chili powder, garlic, oregano, cumin seed, and cayenne pepper” while “tomatoes, green chili peppers, onions, and olive oil ma[de] up the sauce”, they ate their way through an America that despite hardship seemed only too happy to share.
In the just-released UIP book Taste of the Nation, Camille Bégin culls from the FWP’s vivid descriptions, visual cues, culinary expectations, recipes and accounts of restaurant meals to explore how these culinary adventurers and their hosts enjoyed their sense of taste to the fullest. Likes and dislikes, cravings and disgust—all played a part in a drama played out (again and again) on the stage that is the table. Of course, the FWP had its agenda. It framed a tongue-boggling variety of regional food cultures as “American” whatever the real origins, and Bégin shows how the writers used nostalgia, prescriptive gender ideals, and racial stereotypes toward that end.
But like many government projects, America Eats also had its unintended consequences: it kickstarted food writing, the genre that rules our contemporary pop culture. In this excerpt, for examples, Bégin discusses the FWP’s in-depth study of that Mexican cooking essential, the chile pepper:
One sensory characteristic united all Mexican dishes in New Deal food writing: spiciness, “the hotter the better.” The liberal use of chile peppers by Spanish-speaking cooks demarcated the region on multisensory grounds. FWP workers rarely failed to mention the decorative element of ristras, strings of chile pods hanging “like scarlet icicles” on the sides of adobe houses in their description of Mexican neighborhoods, “no matter how humble the hut.” Descriptions of “typically Mexican” restaurant with “sombreros,” “clusters of chile peppers,” and “colorful parrots” hanging “here and there on the wall” provided a quick and efficient introductory description to many of the reports on Mexican food. FWP workers considered peppers—dried, fresh, red or green—indispensable to Mexican food’s “peculiar piquancy,” a taste considered “as pleasing as it [is] hard to reproduce.”
The seasoning was considered “illusive” because the authentic flavor could not be provided by the “pulverized” chili powder marketed to Americans but required the use of home-crushed chile and access to an innate racial knowledge inherited by Mexican cooks from their ancestors in New Spain. Indeed, the range of flavors distinctive to southwestern cuisines depended on a deep knowledge of chili varieties and their culinary use.