One of my recent .99 cent cookbook wins on eBay was an interesting history of eating in America, called strangely enough, “Eating In America – A History” (William Morrow, 1976). The book is one of the last by Waverly Root, whose food books, notably “The Food of France” and “The Food of Italy”, propelled him to literary fame, after a life as a successful newspaper correspondent stationed in Paris while working for The Chicago Tribune and later, The Washington Post. These last two titles count as classics in the food literature world, but the same cannot be said for Eating In America, whose premise is that most Americans have never moved much past the Puritan roots of minimalist and simplistic eating of our ancestors – Root ends the book with a less than optimistic outlook for the future of American eating, “The United States started out with Anglo-Saxon cooking and it is still paying tribute to Anglo-Saxon cooking. It is unlikely that a tradition so strong and so consistent is going to change.”
Interestingly, one might assume that Root and Julia Child, since sharing so many commonalities, as well as being contemporary food writers, might also have shared a friendship – but No. Even though both share a love and respect for French food borne of common epiphanies in Paris, when asked to comment on Root’s appraisal of American eating habits, Julia responded, “I don’t know what he is talking about; anyone can find disgusting things to eat anywhere!”
My own opinion of Root’s view of American eating is that although he may have most of the history right (especially that of the 18th and 19th centuries) perhaps he spent a little too much time in Paris! It is not difficult to assume that frequent after-dinner conversation in Paris was filled with remarks of disdain in regard to American food – and that both Root and Child were subjected to unending volumes of it. But it seems that while Root may have accepted it as a premise for his later book, Child accepted it as a challenge to go back to America as a teacher and change agent. No wonder they did not develop a friendship.
As I read Root’s chronicles of America’s gastronomical culture, I kept waiting for the revelation that as a great melting pot, eventually America was/would begin assimilating all the divergent ingredients of its cultural mix, and ultimately create a new American cuisine – Nope. He even introduces us to a newly coined term, “native foreign” to describe those pockets of external influence on American food habits, such as Tex-Mex and Louisiana Cajun – but then dismisses them as change agents, as if to suggest that they will simply stay put in their current locations until such day as they die away. And he makes no mention, even in the mid 70’s of the oft mentioned cultural food influence of the returning GIs of W.W.II on America’s changing eating habits. I lived through the same period here in America, and I sure as hell could sense the nation’s changing attitude toward food (just as Julia Child was!), but I can’t help but think that Root was unable to see this through his advanced state of francophile exuberance, and missed entirely all the objective evidence around him.
Personally, I think the history of American eating, at least that of the 20th century – the most interesting period in my opinion – can be obtained well, and most interestingly, by reading some selected editions of the most casual and common “recipe collections” available – the limited publication soft cover books known collectively as “Community Fundraising Cookbooks”. For some time now, I’ve been buying a goodly number of these books on eBay, and in local used book stores – I have many hundreds on my bookshelves, and more stuck away in boxes throughout the house. I love reading them, first as a depository of some of America’s best family secret recipes, but also, as I suggest above, because by their very nature and content, they tell a loud story about our nation’s eating habits, practices, and regional differences. Many are simply fascinating.
I often regret that I do not spend more time with these gems – and when that emotion rises, I’ll go get another unread copy and most often, find in it the pleasure of the past, and a new recipe to try – some of these have become our own family favorites. I need an excuse to do this on a regular basis – and I think I’ve thought of a perfect way to do just that.
I’m going to begin to include a semi-regular feature here on this blog, where I’ll select an interesting regional community cookbook from my collection and discuss what it tells us about our culture, history, and most of all, our good foods – of course, I’ll share an appropriate recipe from it as well. Maybe we’ll call it, “America’s Food Secrets”, or something that sounds good eventually. That should be fun – blogs must always be fun – but it can be revealing as well. Maybe we’ll dig up what Root missed in his appraisal – who knows where this could take us?
Some of these books are popular classics, with total print numbers in the many hundreds of thousands – many Junior League editions are in this category – I won’t usually center attention on these, excellent as many are – but I won’t swear I’ll ignore them either. But my personal interest is in the little gems among these books – those that have quite limited printings, but may contain some obscure and treasured family secrets.
I’m making myself excited as I type – I promise to do my best to make the project as much fun for you as for me. Now, where’s my first selection?