WPA guides have enjoyed a profile boost lately—last week, for instance, the New York Times had a fun article and interactive feature about a road trip based on the 1941 Washington state guide. A little more off the radar was Michael Nagrant‘s nice piece in New City Chicago about Nelson Algren‘s work as a food historian for the WPA; in the late ’30s the novelist traveled throughout the Midwest gathering recipes and interviewing cooks. Nagrant writes:
Algren may have derided it as government work, but the book is a fascinating examination of Midwestern ethnic foodways. It features interesting etymology, including the story of how getting “stewed” became a term for getting drunk. There are sections about the box social, an event whereby the young women of East St. Louis cooked up box lunches for an auction whereby male homesteaders who bid the most for the box also acquired the company of its cook for the evening. Such events led to particular mythologies including the idea that a fancy box was usually made by a homely girl.
Algren’s book is out of print, but as it happens a collection of WPA food writing by the likes of Algren, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and more is out now.