Time to Hit the BooksSeptember 5, 2011
On Top of the WorldSeptember 11, 2011
In the foreword to The Great American Cookbook—a revised edition of Clementine Paddleford’s How America Eats—food writer Molly O’Neill compares the author to Lewis and Clark. This is not hyperbole; Paddleford was instrumental in mapping the culinary terrain of this vast country.
Starting in 1936, Paddleford spent 30 years as the food editor of the New York Herald Tribune, a job for which she crisscrossed the US, seeking out recipes and the people and stories behind them. “I have traveled by train, plane, automobile, by mule back, on foot,” she wrote, “in all over 800,000 miles.” By her own account, this book was 12 years in the making.
Though Paddleford’s documentary approach to food writing is now the norm, it wasn’t the case in her day. And she was a trailblazer in other ways as well. Hers were the first nationally published recipes for classics such as Key lime pie, Southern fried chicken, Caesar salad, and New York cheesecake. But she also gave equal billing to what were then considered “ethnic” dishes, including chilis [sic] rellenos, hamantaschen, chicken paprikas, and dolmades.
Alongside each recipe, she painted a picture of the people and places she visited. Like the Kansas homemaker who “was neither young nor beautiful, except for her eyes. They were straight-at-you-eyes, gray-blue, which held a joy-in-living look.” Or another interviewee’s Florida house, with its “white wicker furniture on the terrace, cool-looking as ice cream.” To read her introductions and sidebars is to step back into an America that is at once vastly different and pleasantly familiar.
So what about the food? Testing two recipes out of an 816-page book isn’t exactly a Gallup-worthy scientific sample, but both dishes came out beautifully. Since it’s late summer, I chose to make the corn chowder as well as the sweet-sour beans, the latter using freshly picked string beans from my mother’s garden.
The beans were a breeze to prepare, and their pickled sweetness was even better the second day. As for the corn chowder, I can’t remember the last time I made a soup in the oven—and certainly not in the heat of summer—but as time-consuming (and unnecessarily elaborate) as the recipe was, the dish took me almost no time to consume. And happily, of course. How can you go wrong with fresh corn, cream, potatoes, onions, and bacon (above), I ask you? The answer is you can’t.
In her heyday, Paddleford had an estimated readership of 12 million people per week, but like many pioneers, she was later eclipsed by those who followed the trail she’d so ably mapped. As I read this book, I tried to picture what it was like to be a professional woman traveling on her own in the 1930s—to places as diverse as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City and a beginner’s class in Japanese cooking on the island of Oahu, with stops at countless ranches and farms in between. I imagine that she struggled to be taken seriously as a journalist in an era when the subject she was covering was usually relegated to the women’s sections of newspapers (a designation that was not ever intended as a compliment).
It’s a great injustice that more people are unaware of the time capsule left to us by this remarkable woman, but here’s hoping that this re-issue of Ms. Paddleford’s classic tome will help right that wrong.
The Great American Cookbook, by Clementine Paddleford. Adapted, and with an introduction, by Kelly Alexander. Foreword by Molly O’Neill. (Rizzoli – October 2011)