The food book that never was

 open books

EYB Members love to read not just cookbooks but also literary works with food or cooking as the primary subject matter. Books by M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, and Ruth Reichl stand alongside standard recipe-filled volumes on our bookshelves. NPR’s The Salt tells us about a food book that we would have loved to read – had it ever been published.

During the Great Depression in the US, the federal government put thousands of out-of-work citizens to work in various public projects ranging from construction to writing. For the latter, a program called the Federal Writer’s Project employed over 6,000 white collar workers to write books and pamphlets about the history and culture of each state in the US. In 1939, a subject of the project focused on food was started, with the stated aim of exploring “American cookery and the part it has played in national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes, but also transitional attitudes and customs.”

The lofty project sent writers into the American countryside to chronicle the mealtimes of ordinary citizens. The essays covered local traditions that were changing during a period of great transition in the way people purchased, stored, and prepared their meals. The goal was to gather the best of these essays into a large book that would “propel food writing out from the pages of women’s magazines and into the national spotlight.”

The essays were due the week of Thanksgiving, 1941. After Pearl Harbor was bombed a few weeks later and the US became fully engaged in the war effort, the project was shelved, never to be resurrected. We are left to ponder how those stories would resonate with us today.

Post a comment


  • ccav  on  October 22, 2016

    I wonder, is this information still shelved and could it possibly be made into this book or books in the future?

  • lgroom  on  October 22, 2016

    Gosh, that would be great to read.

  • Jenny  on  October 22, 2016

    So interesting! I would love if someone found these submissions and published them.

  • sir_ken_g  on  October 23, 2016

    Similar to my 1930's Fannie Farmer?

  • Barb_N  on  October 23, 2016

    That project sounds just like what Mark Kurlansky published in Food of a Younger Land in 2009. Could he have compiled the essays from that WPA work?

  • dangold  on  October 23, 2016

    Nelson Algren's contributions for the Illinois Writers Project branch of the WPA project was published in 1992 by the University of Iowa Press as "America Eats" (Iowa Szathmary Culinary Arts Series). The WPA manuscript was also the genesis of 2008's "America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA – the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food Hardcover," by Pat Willard. And it looks like Barb_N is correct about Kurlansky's "Food of a Younger Land," which is subtitled, "A portrait of American food from the lost WPA files."

  • darcie_b  on  October 24, 2016

    Good to know that at least some of these essays have been published!

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!