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BOOK REVIEW : Danger: Food Historians At Work : America Eats, By Nelson Algren . (University of Iowa Press: $22.95, 123 pp.) : P.E.O. Cook Book: Souvenir Edition, Edited by David E. Schoonover . (University of Iowa Press: $12.95 paperback; 175 pp.)

July 09, 1992|ANNE MENDELSON

Browse around a bookstore catering to cookbook fanatics or a big library that keeps up with the field, and you're likely to find quite a few facsimile reprints and scholarly editions. Every year seems to swell the ranks of libraries interested in this literature and knowledgeable editors or historians willing to map out unfamiliar culinary/cultural terrain for would-be learners.

Some of the grist to this mill comes from donations of major private collections to scholarly libraries. The 22,000 cookbooks given by the chef Louis Szathmary to the University of Iowa were such a trove. His gift has borne further results in a planned series of reissues by the University of Iowa Press, under the editorship of David E. Schoonover, meant to make more widely available the best of the Szathmary collection.

The first two volumes are now in print: a previously unpublished manuscript about Midwestern food by the novelist Nelson Algren and a facsimile reprint of an 84-year-old fund - raiser originally compiled by the Knoxville, Iowa, branch of a charitable organization called the P. E. O. Sisterhood.

The main reason for reading "America Eats" today isn't its interest as Algreniana (which is pretty thin--trekking around prairie towns and ex-homesteads in quest of food lore seems to have fired this obdurately urban imagination only once in a while) but its value as a half-accidental snapshot of one Depression-era vista that hasn't been much written about.

The manuscript dates from the late 1930s, when Algren headed up the Illinois branch of the Federal Writers Project, a WPA endeavor that left a legacy of still-remembered state guidebooks. Apparently--the foreword by editor Schoonover gives a less than crystal-clear explanation--the WPA proposed to add to its other publications some unspecified number of guides to regional food ways under the collective title "America Eats," and Algren's effort was destined for that never-published experiment.

Now, we certainly aren't dealing with any rediscovered masterpiece here. Algren's "America Eats" was patently not the work of anyone who knew or cared much about cooking. What Algren produced was a very wispy survey taking in most of the Midwestern states, together with skeletal recipes for 32 dishes. The main text consists of three rambling chapters: "The Buffalo Border" (about pre-European food ways, frontier times and--for some reason--Michigan during the lumber boom); "Festivals in the Fields" (ceremonial meals, from Kansas Indian roast-dog feasts to box socials, fish fries and chitterling suppers), and "Many Nations" (a once-over-lightly of ethnic traditions). Algren must have interviewed a good sampling of people and drawn on some published sources, but one can't even begin to guess at how the information was pieced together. In fact, one can hardly tell whether this is a fragment or, as Schoonover thinks, a completed work.

In any case, it's a marvelous window on the vanished and vanishing. Whoever Algren's informants were, they were 50 years closer than we are to the first few generations of European-descended Midwesterners. People were still alive who remembered burying winter vegetables in shallow pits, catching water in rain barrels, bringing food for "donation parties" to set up the minister's family in housekeeping. It appears that the author himself attended Nebraskan buffalo barbecues (made with cullings from federally overseen herds). Even though the contents of the melting pot were less melted than they are now, Algren knew he was seeing an ultimately unwinnable "fight for survival" in the spectacle of Serbian picnickers in Illinois tucking into barbecued lamb while watching "their American-born children in wonder and dismay, unable to understand an attachment to cold sodas and hot dogs eaten together."

Would that someone had tried to make this disjointed but fascinating record accessible to present-day audiences through judicious annotation and commentary. No such luck. Schoonover in his foreword never gets around even to such scholarly basics as describing the manuscript, while Szathmary proudly wastes 27 pages on revamped versions of the original recipes as tested by the students of a Rhode Island culinary institute--the object being not to make sense out of the skimpy formulas the non-cook Algren got from his informants in 1937 or 1938, but to refocus everything through the tastes and prejudices of 1992.

In the hands of these geniuses, individual fried pies made with dried apples turn into a baked pie made with fresh Granny Smiths--a famous regional dish based on a once-standard ingredient neatly repackaged as a featureless banality. (For a description of the real thing, consult the soon-to-be-reissued "Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery.")

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