It was an exciting moment: I was in the Library of Congress, watching as a cart approached packed with dozens of dull gray boxes. I was about to open what amounted to a time capsule and plunge into the 1940s, an America most of us today can barely conjure. A good way to understand our own times is to examine the past.
Our entry into World War II started a process of inexorable change in America. After 1942, among the biggest immediate shifts: Social programs were closed down and their funds diverted to the military. (We never reversed that. When the war ended, the military spending continued, which is how we ended up with such inadequate healthcare and educational systems.)
Among the first programs to be shut down was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic stimulus package for the Depression, the Works Progress Administration. The WPA put Americans to work on a wide variety of projects. One, the Federal Writers Project, operated in all 48 states and employed more than 4,500 writers, including Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Claude McKay, Conrad Aiken, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Kenneth Patchen, John Cheever and Kenneth Rexroth.
By February 1943, when the WPA was finally closed down, these writers had published a million words about America. There were at least 276 books, some still in print and enjoyed today. In all, with pamphlets and brochures included, the group produced more than 1,000 publications.
Now the raw, unedited manuscripts of the project’s last creative effort -- canceled after Pearl Harbor and never assembled -- was contained in the gray boxes before me. That ambitious effort explored the social and gastronomic traditions of American food. Novelists, anthropologists, out-of-work reporters, teachers, secretaries, typists and penniless people who had always wanted to be writers were instructed to send in recipes, interviews, stories of parties and picnics, pancake breakfasts and weddings, and anything else they could find that had something to do with food and eating in America.
Some of what the time capsule revealed was surprisingly familiar: Even back then, they were writing about empty-headed New York literary events and health-food trends in Los Angeles. On the other hand, Georgians no longer gather solely for the novelty of drinking Coca-Cola. And you know it was a different America when an Italian American in New England writing about her ethnic traditions explains to the readers what ravioli is.
The first thing I noticed was that most of the pages -- many that clearly had never been read before -- were typed on that crisp, translucent paper called onion skin. Many were carbon copies -- there were no photocopy machines.
There are other things these manuscripts chronicle that we are glad have changed over the years. Immigration laws were far more restrictive before the war, and the country had less diversity. The manuscripts also show us a pre-civil-rights South. We should not forget what that was. African American sources are identified by first name only, with the tagline “a negro.” Interviews with black people show stunning condescension, with the tone like that of a master talking to a slave. When Zora Neale Hurston -- then author of three books, including a highly respected novel, and an experienced anthropologist with a prestigious Columbia anthropology degree -- found herself without money, she went to see fellow Columbia graduate Henry Alsberg, who ran the writers project. Alsberg, recognizing that she was better qualified than most of the project’s writers, sent her to her native Florida to be a supervising editor. But the Florida group found it unthinkable for a black woman to be in charge and gave her the lowest-level job.
Still, in some ways it was an appealing America, where local traditions had deep roots and there were no highways or fast food and few freezers. Food was fresh and local and completely different in one part of the country than in another. These days, you would be lucky to encounter a local rabbit stew on Long Island, a good Georgia possum and taters, Indiana pork cake or Montana fried beaver tail. Back then, simply driving along the major routes, the traveler could stop and sample the difference from county to county.
A Virginia writer of the 1930s, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, wrote, “If the tourist does not find the Virginian foods along the highway, he should knock at some farmhouse door, register his complaint against American standardization.” Apparently not enough people complained and, although there are now attempts to return to eating local, it may be too late.
Of even greater concern is how much less of our natural resources is available. In 1940, we had rivers on both coasts teeming with salmon; abalone steak was a basic dish in San Francisco; the New England fisheries were booming with cod and halibut. Maple trees covered the Northeast, and syruping time was as certain as the order of months on a calendar. Flying squirrels still leaped from conifer to hardwood in the forests of Appalachia, where they were eaten in stews.
Today, Atlantic salmon is near extinction, Atlantic cod and halibut are increasingly rare, abalone is even more scarce. Since the 1970s, the winter temperature in our sugar maple zone has risen between two and three degrees on average, and the syruping season now begins uncertainly about five weeks earlier than it did in 1940. There are steadily fewer maple trees, and scientists suspect that they are being destroyed not only by climate change but by acid rain caused by pollution. The flying squirrel that glided between trees among the unlogged old-growth forests in Appalachia has nearly vanished, along with the forests.
It is important to remember that there was a time, not long ago, when nature’s bounty in America seemed endless, when we had a sense of roots and tradition, when local food and slow foods were not movements but a way of life, and America had a cuisine, and when the U.S. government invested in the creativity of the American people. Though we have made some gains, it is terrifying to see how much we have lost in only 70 years.