A little over ten years ago, I was paid to eat my way across America. The idea was to follow the trails of writers employed in the the 1930’s by the Federal Writers Program as they sought to understand how our national dishes developed. The way we did it was to attend as many community dinners and fairs as possible, with the idea that, since we are a nation of strangers, we developed a central identity and cuisine by gathering together and sharing recipes that gradually became what we think of today as American food.
I started in May at the Boalsburg, Pennsylvania Memorial Day celebration (the town’s people claim the right to having invented the holiday).
The December Shepherd’s Ball in Boise, Iowa was my final stop. In between I went to the great state fairs and tiny harvest festivals (a star–the Watermelon Festival in Rock Spring, Oklahoma that included a helluva seed spitting contest!). Pancake breakfasts, firehouse spaghetti nights, Brunswick stew cook-offs, Oktoberfest, and the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament Portuguese blow-out in Bedford, Massachusetts.
I gained 15 pounds and continue to be awed by the people I met and the places where I landed.
My sister and I were fantasizing about going out again but I don’t have another publisher to finance it. And then there’s Covid-19. I pulled out my old map and discovered that, while many of the state fairs seem to be keeping their hopes up, the smaller festivals and events–so much more fun and stirring–have been cancelled or postponed. Sad and frustrating as this is, it’s exactly the right thing to do if we want them to come back next year with all our neighbors crowded together in attendance. If you’re not convinced, a re-reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Dress might help.
The second best thing to traveling about the country and finding good things to eat is to open a community cookbook (this link will take you to the Library of Congress’s vast archive covering every state). I inherited a bunch from Mom and bought a couple more in thrift stores. I also picked up a few at the fairs. The recipes are anchored in the character of the region where they were collected, the products of local PTAs, church groups and ethnic societies. They’re also a fine guide to food fads. Peking duck and mock apple/Ritz cracker pies make consistent appearances in the late 1960s; stabs at ethnic food pop up in the 1970s–fondues, chop suey, Coquille Saint-Jacques.
This is as far as I got in writing this. I just heard that the husband of a close friend died in a motorcycle accident late yesterday and I can’t think beyond her and their children’s monumental loss and that of his multitude of friends. In one deep sense, this post is fitting for someone like Damien. He possessed a high place in his Caribbean community, imbued with a special power to make humans and animals feel comforted and loved in his presence. I can’t begin to imagine my friend’s grief, especially in this time when it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, for her family and all the people who loved him to gather in praise of his short life.
I’ll think of something special to cook in his honor, probably a dish from his homeland, and send it out to you later in the week.
Thanks for understanding.