or how I went into Bobst again and found myself amongst the food books
Curious to see how my home state of Pennsylvania would sell its steel towns and “bumblef***” center to 1930s tourists, I was excited to look through the WPA guides this week. I wondered if the guide would take a historical approach and focus on the underground-railroad stations or Revolutionary War battlegrounds. Today, the Amish have made themselves a lucrative tourist attraction (honestly, I mean that as respectfully as possible), but I wonder if visitors to the state considered Intercourse and Paradise “must-see” destinations the same way my Bronx-born roommate of freshman year did. Maybe guests would be shown pictures of the state’s beautiful wildlife, or the universities in Philly or the bridges in Pittsburg.
And my most burning question, as someone increasingly interested in the fate of the old cities and town that sprung up around PA steel mills, is ‘what do the guides say about places like Phoenixville and Coatesville?’ But I am stuck writing in the present tense because my questions remain unanswered.
One of the websites mentioned that the guide produced by Pennsylvania was one of the largest; it turns out that all 700+ pages focus on Philadelphia and its immediately surrounding area. The guide includes Swarthmore and Byrn Athn and some of those fun old Dutch words like Schuylkill, but the Hibernia mansion and the steel towns both escaped mention.
I was only somewhat discouraged, though, because the America Eats!
project sounded potentially fascinating. Hoping to make up for my inability to trek to the Library of Congress and ask them about the PA WPA guide, I decided to look through the America Eats!
book (which Bobcat claimed was on the shelf at Bobst). Again I was disappointed; there were sequels with the same title in the stacks, but no copy of any part of the original could be found (or at least not there, and I didn’t have time to sit in Fales).
In the end, I picked up the Pat Willard 2008 version of America Eats!
to leaf through, along with a book from 1938 called The Way to A Man’s Heart: The Settlement Cook Book
just for kicks. Willard’s book records her reflections from a tour she took around the country following in the steps of the original guide writers. Frankly, I want a shot at whatever grant let her do that…I have a secret dream of travelling the country to document community fairs and libraries (not that they’re related; I just like both) and manufacturing towns. The other book suggests putting egg in coffee, potato water in bread, and setting the table differently for a “Russian dinner” (i.e. one with a maid) than an English or an informal dinner.
There was a passage from Willard’s book in which she described walking around a fair and avoiding the fair food. She wrote that a young man walked past her with a tray full of Twinkies and Hostess and such, and that he commented as if discussing the food: “This sucks ass.” The first time I read that passage, I hadn’t yet realized that the book was inspired by the original WPA guide; I had thought that fragments of the original work were stitched together in the book. The rather contemporary language quickly shook me from my delusion.
But the search for the book got me thinking about our food heritage and our perception of it. Willard accuses the public record of being unfair to America’s food history. While I’ve never heard our cuisine praised on par with that of Italy or France, I’ve also never heard it said that our food is as bad as Willard claims it’s reputed to be. Maybe I just talk to the wrong people, but how could a menu with options from Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Germany, Mexico, Trinidad, Korea and so many other countries possibly be terrible? This merits further investigation…I’m off to the kitchen (for some egg-free coffee).
Before I go, I should explain the pictures. Willard also has some excellent stories about New York city (and a few of her other destinations). She has a few odd-ball moments as well. The pictures I included are the moments I want to share with you. At the top is an amusing glossary of slang terms from deli counters, and below is a recipe for...well...you'll see...