16 July 2014

America Eats!

Where is the Works Progress Administration (WPA) when you need it? 

Alas, like so many really great government programs, the  WPA ran out of money and vision at roughly the same time.  In the 1930's, the WPA sent writers and photographers into the countryside to document what America Eats! It was an illustrious bunch: Dorthea Lange, Ralph Ellison, and Eudora Welty, to name a few. 

They went to Seders, homecomings, cemetery cleanings and taverns.  They ate barbecue, possum, chittlins, and oysters.  They documented the food with photographs and recipes and in the end, the book was never published.

Then Pat Willard came along.  Willard set out with the blueprint for the unpublished manuscript and searched archives around the country to find the original documents for America Eats! Some were lost, some were lacking the recipes, some were in disarray.  Willard hoped to assemble a book as close to the original intent of WPA project, though she often needed a bit of context to tell her own story.    As she travels looking for old WPA documents, she meets renown chefs lost in their own grandness, family farms, and food traditions carried on for centuries. 

The old Fulton Fish Market shipped 10,000,000 pounds of shelled oysters a year.  The Oyster Bar of the Grand Central Terminal is a far cry from the original 3 seats it had in 1913.  But the oysters remain famous.  For America Eats!, Allan Ross Macdougall was given this recipe by the chef in 1941.

Grand Central Oyster Stew

Melt 1/4 ounce of butter in a double boiler; add 1/3 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon celery salt, 1/3 teaspoon paprika, one shake of white pepper, 8 drops of Worcestershire sauce, 2 large tablespoons of oyster (or clam) liquor.  Boil briskly for a few minutes with constant stirring.  As mixture bubbles high add 8 oysters and cook 3 minutes more, all the while turning the oysters gently.  Add 1/2 pint of rich milk and continue t stir.  When mixture begins to boil, pour out into a bowl, add a at of butter and s shake of paprika,  Serve with small round oyster crackers.

With a large mess of a manuscript (actually, about a hundred small, disparate manuscripts) Willard has done a fine job of giving a feel to this lost project.

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