Friday, May 25, 2012

Booknote: America Eats!

I read this book near the end of last year, but as I was reviewing my journal, I found some notes I took from the book that I thought were worth sharing in this blog. You can read my review of America Eats! On the Road with the WPA--the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food over on my GoodReads page here.

I wrote down these passages, with some commentary, while I was reading the book. The book I think tells us a lot about American society today, and there are things worth pondering. I think in the current political climate where a lot of the attitudes seem to be "everyone is on their own" and "I've got mine, Jack," we can learn a thing or two from projects like the ones the WPA did.

I jotted down this observation on funerals from the book. Funerals are often social events that involve food. In the book, we see that funerals were important for passing on traditions. Things have changed since the WPA workers wrote about the funerals they observed, and maybe things have not changed for the better:

"But although death continues to be one of the few remaining aspects of life that shakes to our core, funerals no longer make the same social demands they once did. Here's why: Relatives no longer live so close together and women are working at jobs away from home just as hard as men are. These two factors, it can be argued, have changed American eating customs more than anything else in recent years and funerals are particularly affected by this" (188). 

My next note from the book is from where it tells a bit about the 2003 electric blackout in New York City. The author discusses how, for a while at least, people had to socialize as they went outside. They had to talk to their neighbors; some of them even grilled food outside together. Then, the power came back:

"This is the real tragedy for American social life in general, and for our food in particular. When times of social trouble or upheaval, such as the Great Depression, are visited upon communities, gathering strangers and friends together is a uniting factor. It allows us to suffer together and protect one another. Because we are a country without a common ancestry, the strengths of our communities rely on those moments where we can find equal ground and create a joint experience" (212). 

And continuing the line of thought, this spirit, if I can use the word, is seriously lacking these days. What we seem to have now is a nation that, more often than not, seems to relish and make it the national hobby to demonize the poor or less fortunate and any sense of safety nets for them. Sure, some people may say they give to Charity X or Organization Y, but that is often impersonal, cold. One does not really have to look the poor in the eyes so to speak:

"At the same time, what was at the heart of the fun feed gatherings was a quiet understanding that resources were being spread around from the those who had to those who may not have had" (212). 

Of course, what was back then simply sharing a common burden and helping a neighbor in need is today evil, socialist, wealth redistribution, and many say that those lazy poor losers should just starve, preferably out of sight. The passage goes on:

"As noted in the last America Eats! article, 'No one goes hungry.' Families that were doing without through that hard period got a good meal-- no questions asked and no shame needed to be felt when sitting across the table from you was the local banker and his family sharing the same meal" (212). 

Maybe that is part of the problem today: the depersonalization of poverty and the subsequent loss of compassion. While the Depression era is not one to be romanticized, I think there are lessons from history that we may well need to heed today. We see basic values of decency that seem to be missing these days. There are bright points of hope, but they sure seem so very few. Why can't our society today make a stand and say, as they did back then, "no one goes hungry"?

In the end, here is what the federal writers discovered about American food overall, and it somewhat lives today. The idea is food as community:

"By talking about our food within the context of social engagements, the federal writers were able to reveal something very important about American cooking: It's not actually the taste of our food, but the use of it, that has been important to our cuisine's development. Even at the most food-centric gatherings, emphasis was less on the dishes than on how they supported the reason for people to meet" (281). 

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