History: Writing Project of the '30s Provided Food for Thought

For the first few pages the world seems familiar enough. You can quickly be deceived that you are in familiar surroundings as you read these descriptions of Vermont food traditions of the early 20th century. Only a few details mark the scenes as dated – perhaps the people singing "Put on Your Old Gray Bonnet" at the sugar-on-snow party or the two women discussing how best to play a bridge hand at the church chicken pie supper.

Then, several pages later, the writer is discussing how to make such dishes as apple pan dowdy, spiced currant relish and soused pig's feet, and you are suddenly in terra incognito.

When she unearthed the historic documents on Vermont's eating habits, cultural anthropologist Amy Trubek was struck by the intersections of the familiar and the strange. She stumbled upon the papers, which were from the Vermont Writers' Project, while researching another topic at the Library of Congress. The writers' project was part of a national effort to record the country's food traditions. The book, the result of the project, was to be called "America Eats."

But just before the book was to be published, America entered World War II, which in turn ended Depression-era jobs programs like the national writers' project. A section on food traditions of the Midwest was eventually published. Other than that, though, the work's only audience has been researchers like Trubek.

"I found many interesting snippets about what people were like," she says. "It just gives you this tiny little snapshot, just a soupcon, but it's enough to make you wonder what was going on."

As Trubek talks, she sounds like she is discussing some mysterious civilization – not our state a mere 65 years ago.

"For most of history, people cooked responsively," says Trubek, who is on leave from the New England Culinary Institute while on a W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellowship. "People cooked what was around them."

So in that sense, Vermonters in the late 1930s were more closely tied to their ancient ancestors than they would be to us.

"We are in this weird modern moment because we decide what we want to cook," says Trubek – we don't just make do with what is at hand. "Now we ask: Do I want burritos tonight or do I want some Thai dish? It's totally bizarre."

It might seem strange to us to use almost exclusively local ingredients to concoct such unfamiliar dishes as pickled butternuts, baked Indian pudding, or squash flower relish, but says Trubek, from an historical perspective "we are the weird ones."

Trubek shared a copy of the papers with her friend cookbook writer Marialisa Calta, who lives in Calais. Together, they pitched the idea of printing the writings as a book, but publishers so far have been cool to the idea. That hasn't stopped them from thinking the papers are significant.

"It is as close to time travel as you can get," says Calta. "You can actually taste what people long ago tasted."

But the food writings and the recipes accompanying them give readers more than a chance to experience a long-gone flavor.

"When you spend time reading about food, you get a real-time understanding of how people spent their days," says Calta. And not just any people, but the ones most often ignored in history books: women.

Many of the recipes revolved around a large piece of meat being cooked for much of the day, which suggests to Calta that the women lived very home-centered lives. They had to be around to stoke the fire and check the food. Then, when it was done, they would serve the meat in a way that strangely reminded Calta of Indian cuisine. To accompany the meat, they would offer an array of pickled foods, just as Indian cooks might offer a variety of chutneys.

Some of the recipes sound about as exotic to modern ears as those chutney-like relishes. Take spiced beef, which was eaten cold for breakfast or supper. The recipe says: "A round of beef is salted down for a week, then washed well and black pepper and mace rubbed in; then put into a stone stew pan along with three or four onions, sliced and fried, a few cloves; covered with water and baked for five hours."

The recipes are remarkably short and devoid of detail. As Beatrice Vaughan wrote in her 1963 book, "Yankee Hill-Country Cooking," recipes were typically "written in almost telegraphic form by experienced cooks who assumed that other housewives could fill in any gaps as to ingredients and methods."

Similarly, Cora Moore, who wrote the recipes for the Vermont Writers' Project, assumed you already knew how to salt down beef or make a piecrust. The assumption, says Calta, was that "if you couldn't, then what were you doing reading a cookbook?" The secrets of the kitchen were passed down from one generation of women to another.

That, of course, is no longer true in many American households. "Nowadays everything needs explanation," says Calta, the cookbook author. "You would think by now we would know more, at least about technique."

But for various societal reasons, women no longer can or choose to devote so much time to cooking.

Another lost tradition was once common in Barre. In her portion of the Vermont project, writer Mari Tomasi documents how some Italian women in that city, to help their families during hard times, turned their homes into mini restaurants. Tomasi's descriptions make the food sound like the best meal in town: "The array of appetizers leaves the (first-time visitor) agape. Paper-thin slices of prosciutto, a ham processed in pepper and spices. Large, red wafers of tasty salami. Pickled veal. Celery. Ripe olives, the dark succulent meats falling away easily from their pits..." You get the idea.

The women, often the widows of granite workers, cooked first for neighbors, then the friends of neighbors. Word spread and eventually the general public was knocking at the door. By Tomasi's count, about 50 families were offering home-cooked meals, dubbed "Italian feeds," during the late '30s or early '40s.

Though most of these families probably arrived in the United States decades earlier and considered themselves quite American, Trubek isn't surprised to see them maintain their Italian cuisine.

"Food practices are the last to change in assimilating," she explains. "Language is the first to go, dress often goes soon after, but food is the stickiest."

We might cling tenaciously to food traditions, but they can still slip away, and with them go a piece of our past.

"We are so interested in celebrating Vermont's agricultural heritage," Trubek says, "but often we don't understand what it was really like. But this can really help us understand what people were doing with the land."

Mark Bushnell's history column is a regular feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine.

June 27, 2006

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