Camille Bégin. Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America’s Food. University of Illinois Press, 2016. xi, 197 pp.
Camille Bégin’s Taste of the Nation: The New Deal Search for America’s Food examines the America Eats archive, an obscure and compelling collection of essays and photographs on food originally gathered from 1935 to 1941 by the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project (FWP). The ambitious endeavor sought to present the public with a detailed volume on Depression-era American eating habits, but the project ultimately stalled and was never published. Although incomplete, America Eats remains an important resource on the intersection between foodways and identity formation. Bégin adeptly uses visual and written descriptions of taste to extrapolate greater cultural themes (a process referred to as “sensory studies”) and in the process reveals fascinating conclusions on the nature of American food culture.
The first two chapters of Taste of the Nation review the origin of the America Eats project and outline its major logistical and philosophical goals. The project’s editors planned to divide the volume into five culinary regions: the Northeast, the South, the Southwest, the Middle West, and the Far West. Teams of researchers and writers would be assigned to each area to develop documentary accounts that, taken as a whole, would expose a unified American food culture. The project aimed to show a vibrant and plentiful shared cultural heritage that contrasted with the realities of Depression era life, and to bolster national pride and patriotism in the buildup to World War II. Essays on traditional regional food preparation and consumption took precedence over descriptions of modern industrial food production, and private cooking routines—deemed beyond the scope of the project—were replaced with depictions of food in the public sphere. As Bégin deduces, narrowing the focus so sharply on regional public traditions instantly crippled the project’s influence and left massive swaths of American society (from ethnic communities, to immigrant populations, and predominantly female home cooks) excluded from the narrative.
While editors saw these parameters as necessary to develop a singular definition of American national food identity, they quickly ran into difficulties incorporating the more nuanced components of American society into the project. Deciding which ethnic communities to include and which to exclude, and how much industrialized food preparation methods would be considered acceptable before questions of “authenticity” would arise, for example, became significant obstacles that Bégin argues ultimately forced editors to abandon the project in 1942. As Bégin concludes:
Project leads “choose to celebrate tradition and taste, pointing to the sensory past as a solution for the future. But despite this original stance, they became enmeshed in the moral discourses woven around food, the dichotomy between real and fake, good and bad food—however defined—that continues to animate American food culture” (158).
In Chapters 3 and 4, Bégin changes course from a general review of the project to give specific examples of the cultural complexities unearthed in the collection’s resources. Chapter 3 focuses solely on America Eats’ descriptions of African American food culture. Simultaneously revered for their culinary acumen and denigrated to menial preparation tasks, African Americans in the South struggled to define a respected and shared culinary culture. African American migration to northern cities further complicated this phenomenon, as regional variants melded into a singular concept of “Black food” in urban restaurants and communities.
Chapter 4 uses examples of Mexican food writing in the Southwest to explore notions of authenticity and culinary exoticism. According to the America Eats authors, tasting chilis and other spicy foods offered travelers a form of adventure tourism, but one that was unknowingly commodified and anglicized to suite their tastes. Throughout the chapter, Bégin combines the written evidence with photographs from the America Eats archive and similar FWP projects. Her visual analyses are some of the strongest sections of the book, as evident in her interpretation of an image entitled Tortilla Maker, Olvera Street, Los Angeles. While the image of a woman making tortillas attempted to portray a nostalgic, romanticized view of female Mexican street vendors, it instead exposed an entrepreneurial economy wherein advantageous women catered to tourists seeking exoticism. Instead of making tortillas by hand on the street, however, Bégin explains that the tortilla maker in the photograph worked on an industrialized factory assembly line.
Bégin analyzes numerous other images that contradict the idealized and simplified assertions of American food culture that some of the America Eats essays portrayed, including a photograph of a southern barbecue that exposed racial power structures, and an image of a Los Angeles cookout that revealed a far more ethnically diverse event than its accompanying essay described. At times the absence – conscious or not – of key figures and details in some of the essays spoke louder than the descriptions themselves. This argument is reviewed further in Chapter 5, in which Bégin discusses the project’s lack of substantive texts on Italian and Chinese immigrant contributions to American cuisine. Out of necessity, she relies heavily on evidence beyond the scope of the America Eats archive in this chapter. The archive texts themselves are so rich with details that their general absence from the chapter is noticeable, however, which makes this chapter feels slightly disjointed from the rest of the book. Nevertheless, to better understand the goals and underlying priorities of the project, it is essential to review what was excluded from the writings as much as what was included.
Similar studies, such as Jeffrey Pilcher’s 1998 ¡Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity, have shown the complications and ultimate futility in defining a national identity through food, but Bégin is one of the first to delve deeply into the America Eats project’s attempt to catalogue an American national cuisine. Exposing this mostly forgotten trove of sources on Depression-era American food culture would alone be an undertaking worthy of praise, but Bégin’s astute work goes beyond simple exposition to become a detailed and significant academic review of American race, gender, and ethnicity. Taste of the Nation is both an effective sensory history and an important addition to conversations on food culture and national identity formation.
Peter Mabli is a PhD history student at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His research involves cultural identity formation in the early American republic as it relates to discussions of national foodways and cuisine. Peter also teaches American History at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and is a Program Director for the American Social History Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY.