The Celluloid Pantry: "America Eats" and Community Meals in Tough Times

[Beginning next week, The Celluloid Pantry will take a short hiatus while Nora serves at the 2007 American Egg Board Fellow at The Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow. We will return May 22.] ]

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This past weekend we attended the America Eats Symposium presented by the Culinary Historians of New York. It was all about piecing together what remains of an unfinished Depression/WWII-Era project started by the Work Projects Administration (WPA), documenting the way ordinary Americans ate during the 30s and 40s.

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The project gave unemployed writers (including, it’s rumored though disputed, Hollywood’s Nelson Algren) work during lean times, and focused on community meals—church suppers, clambakes, political BBQs and the like. The idea was to capture the spirit of simple regional home cooking and the colorful lore and customs surrounding it. Some foods described (and served for lunch at the Symposium) included: mashed potato salad, apple stack cake, devilled eggs, and ambrosia (orange slices sprinkled with sugar and coconut), to name just a few. (We made six salmon loaves with a recipe from a 1936 edition of The Christian Science Monitor for the event.)

There was often a sense of ingenuity and thrift in these meals, using home-grown and home-preserved ingredients, as well as a general feeling of community and pulling together to make use of scant resources. Potluck at its best.

We were doing some thinking about films of the era that bring this spirit to life. It Happened One Night (1934) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941) are good examples with their on-the-road pooling of scant resources, as is The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), where department a store clerk (Jean Arthur) shares her brought-from-home lunch of tuna popovers with tycoon in disguise (Charles Coburn). And then, of course, there’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), where a migrant family is given bread and candy at a truck stop (above, left) and then, in turn, feeds hungry children at a campsite (above, right).

Can you think of any others?

- Nora

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Nora Maynard is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her recent work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, and The Millions. She recently completed her ninth marathon and her first novel, Burnt Hill Road. Nora wrote for The Kitchn from 2006 to 2011.