The Lansing-area non-profit Sustainable Farmer and MSU departments of Journalism and History want to send food historian Helen Veit to digitize documents related to the Depression-era WPA program America Eats. The program put unemployed writers to work, including Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston, by sending them around the country to write about regional food specialties. A selection of the essays edited by Mark Kurlansky was published a few years ago as The Food of a Younger Land. As you can tell from the cover & subtitle, “Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal, Regional, and Traditional—from the lost WPA files,” Kurlansky is heavily invested in the myth that everyone ate fresh, local, authentic food back in the Good Old Days three decades after The Jungle. That’s despite the fact that the essays and other materials he included reveal that people involved in America Eats were really divided over questions of what to include, particularly regarding recipes and events that involved industrial, commercial products. Because counter to the pastoral image on the right, those were were a huge part of the inter-war American diet and the basis for many unique, regional practices like Coca-Cola parties in Atlanta. The decision to focus instead on ethnically and regionally-marked church suppers and first and second-generation immigrant practices resurrected primarily for holiday meals was driven by particular ideologies about the nation and the goals of documentary.
The planned WPA book series never materialized, partially because of the conflicts over what to include, but primarily because attention and resources were diverted by World War II. Many of the documents generated by the project were scattered to state archives or thrown away, but there are four boxes of material at the Library of Congress. The goal of the Kickstarter campaign is to send Dr. Veit to DC to scan all of that in and make it available online. I’ve never seen Kickstarter used as academic fund-raising before, but I guess for a project with potential public appeal like this one, why not?
As little as $1 gets your name on the website as a supporter and access to all the material they digitize (unclear if they’re planning on restricting access, which would make me a little cranky, but I guess if the price barrier stays as low as $1 that’s not too bad). For a little more, you can get heirloom tomato seeds, a tote bag, and/or a t-shirt. The America Eats Today site, where the archival materials will eventually be available, appears to be a work in progress, but there’s a short video up on the Kickstarter page where you can hear a little more about the project from Dr. Veit.