AMERICA EATS by Nelson Algren


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In the Thirties, before he made his name with The Man With the Golden Arm, Algren was one of several soon-to-be-famous hungry writers hired by the WPA for the Illinois Writers Project's regional guides. Algren's subject was midwestern food customs, and he covered it with considerable charm and attention, though World War II disrupted the project, and his report is just now being published.

Algren sets a fluent pace from the beginning with an information-rich yet lively and almost lyrical evocation of Native American ("Indian," in his day) and frontier food-ways; and he keeps it up through rolling views of pancake-scoffing lumberjacks, bear-eating voyagers, homesteaders with their apple-peclin' socials, farmers' harvest potlucks, a community buffalo festival, slave food brought north, ethnic spectacles (such as an annual Serbian-American picnic for 2,500), and the various specialties of different immigrant groups--all of whom, Algren observes, tend to make steady diets of their Old World special feast foods. None of this sounds like Nelson Algren as we know him, but it has far more style, vitality, and apt detail than the run of today's (or yesterday's) folksy foodlore. As for recipes, they hail from almost everywhere but run to solid European fare, with only one vegetable dish in the lot. Referring no doubt to the directions rather than to the dishes as eaten, Algren declares them "lousy"--he simply wrote down what the cooks told him--and the more knowledgeable Louis Szathmary (a Hungarian-American chef, food writer, and cookbook collector who knew Algren and bought the manuscript from him shortly before his death) has, he says here, found some outlandish. Thus the whole recipe batch is appended twice: first, as Algren heard and wrote them, and then as Szathmary and a crew of assistants have revised them.

Consider Algren's versions engaging documents and Szathmary doable.

Pub Date: May 29th, 1992
ISBN: 978-0-87745-361-1
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Univ. of Iowa Press