Friday, July 25, 2008

Pat Willard's "America Eats!"

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.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA-The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin' Feasts that Define Real American Food, and reported the following:
America’s culinary history is used to getting no respect. We think of ourselves too often as a nation of deep-fry-loving idiots, too used to fast-food and processed ingredients to know–let alone care–about the finer points of cooking and eating.

Thank God, then, for America Eats!, the manuscript written for the Federal Writers’ Project by out-of-work writers (some of whom, such as Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Nelson Algren would go on to greatness), during the Great Depression. Beginning in 1935, the writers produced such famous works as state travel guides and oral histories of former slaves and general laborers–from stone cutters to circus dancers.

In the later years, they were asked to produce “an account of group eating as an important American social institution; its part in development of American cookery as an authentic art.” It was to be called America Eats!, that final exclamation point a critical cue for the exuberance the subject was intended to arouse.

The manuscript, however, was never printed. Congress cut the Project’s funding in 1943. State offices were told to box up writers notes, research and unfinished manuscripts–including all of America Eats!, which had been in the final editing stages–and send them off to the Library of Congress.

My book, America Eats! On the Road with the WPA: The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials and Chitlin’ Feasts that Define Real American Food, dusts off the original manuscript to explore our culinary roots and to use as a guide to discover how we eat and think about food today.

Page 99 finds us on the second page of the chapter “Political Gatherings”–what were once considered great occasions to barbecue. It starts with the ending of the FWP’s story about Bluebill, a barbecue God, and the beginning of my own reporting:

his sauce and mop. And, as the brown hunks of meat approach perfection, Bluebill grows as proud as a monkey with a tin tail. As the main speaker booms forth, his sonorous voice damning taxes and the Republican party, the fourteen hours of preparations come to an end, and the attention hitherto given the candidate is divided between him and eating. While the speaker is describing his opponent as a “shallow-brained, slack-jawed liar, a bull ape of Mississippi politics, a big baboon cavorting like a fat pony on high cats,” teeth are already sinking into fresh bread, thick slices of beef, and Bluebill’s incomparable sauce, the ladies are seeking glasses of lemonade from Uncle Si Curtis’ stand, and the men are passing out the corn liquor.

Speeches over, the speakers move over to the table themselves, and the crowd makes way a little, but just a little. Dead enemies, who were a moment ago blackening each other for all eternity on the platform, meet, help each other to the delectable, tantalizing beef, the bread, and the potato salad, sample each others’ whiskey and chat as if food and drink have eradicated all differences–at least for the moment.

–Mississippi Office

It is close to noon and as the day heats up, blistering the swampy land to a dry scab, the two sisters take a break from shelling beans to listen to the politicians swirling around the pavilion in Founders Square at the Neshoba County Fair. Whether it’s an election year or not, if you want to be within fifty feet of a politician and hear a political speech, then the Neshoba County Fair is where you end up traveling to. The Square is packed–almost standing-room only–with people who have come down for the day to listen to the political speeches, and with those who live in rows of wooden cabins or in trailers on the fairgrounds for the week. The sisters have been attending the Fair since 1936 when Marie, the oldest sister at 93, was a bride. She proudly points back across the Square to what looks like nothing more than a two-story shack leaning in a line beside other shacks.

“That’s Dr. Jay Stribling’s cabin,” she says, speaking proudly of her husband’s father, both men long dead. Marie turns back and looks around the Square, trying to recall how many speeches she’s listened to over the years.

“My mind’s not as sharp as it used to be,” she smiles and shakes her head a little indifferently, brushing a white curl away from her forehead. She turns to her sister for help. “How many do you consider, Cecilia?”

Read an excerpt from America Eats!, and learn more about the author and her work at Pat Willard's website and her blog.

--Marshal Zeringue