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The Author Speaks

Lost Customs and Recipes From a Time When All Eating Was Local

Lost Customs and Recipes From a Time When All Eating Was Local

Q. Are there any food traditions that you grew up with that you don’t see anymore?

A. I’m from New England, and actually New England, along with the South, is one of the better places for preserving regional traditions. There is a very strong sense of regional food—clam chowder and Indian pudding and fried clams. Some things have pretty much vanished; there are some New England traditions in the book that I had never heard of.

Q. Like what?

A. May breakfasts. They were huge fundraising breakfasts cooked in May by women in church parishes. I included two articles about May breakfasts, one from Connecticut and one from Rhode Island. It’s a tradition that I never heard of. A lot of those types of traditional social gatherings have disappeared.

Q. Other examples include communal pancake breakfasts and clam bakes. “Coca-Cola Parties in Georgia,” which described young women getting together to gossip and drink Coca-Cola, was a great piece.

A. I don’t know Georgia well, but I can’t imagine that they still have Coca-Cola Parties. But one of the things that makes all this so interesting is the nature of the WPA and Katherine Kellock, who was the real brains behind the Federal Writers’ Project. When she conceived of “America Eats,” she wanted to emphasize those social aspects of food, which is why there is so much about those kinds of gatherings.

Q. Tell me more about her.

A. Kellock was a really interesting woman. She was a writer who took a pay cut to work for the Federal Writers’ Project, because she had an idea that she loved: guidebooks about America. There weren’t any at the time. So the FWP produced guidebooks for almost all the states, as well as big cities and a few towns. The guidebooks were quite successful, which surprised a lot of people. Once the guidebooks were finished, they needed a new project, and Kellock came up with “America Eats.” I think it was coming off of the guidebooks that made her so interested in the social role of food, the people involved and the controversies in different places.

Q. Do any of the food controversies in “America Eats” still endure?

A. Oh yeah. In New England, they’re still arguing over what a good clam chowder is and what a bad clam chowder is. Putting tomatoes in clam chowder is strictly forbidden according to some New Englanders. In the South, they still argue about the proper way to make a mint julep; the enduring question is whether or not you should crush the mint. Those controversies are still around, just as Southerners still drink mint juleps. Somebody gave me one at 10 o’clock in the morning before giving a reading in New Orleans.

Q. We might be better off without some of the foods written about in “America Eats.” Is anyone still eating Brunswick stew, which is made with squirrel meat?

A. People aren’t eating squirrel as much. The squirrels in original Brunswick stews were flying squirrels from the Appalachians, and they’ve become endangered because they only live in old-growth forests, which aren’t around as much.

That also struck me, how much of the food that was plentiful and commonplace then isn’t now. Not only flying squirrels, but a lot of fish—wild Atlantic salmon is almost gone. Northeasterners mainly eat farmed salmon. Cod is harder to come by. There are fewer maple trees, for a variety of reasons including global warming. So a lot of things are disappearing for environmental reasons, and it’s only been about 70 years. It’s kind of scary to think about.

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