Eating Her Way Across America

Reviewed by Belle Elving
Sunday, October 26, 2008


The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate

By Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris

Gotham. 318 pp. $27.50

How could we have forgotten a name like Clementine Paddleford? And yet most everyone has. Her newspaper articles and nationally syndicated columns fill hundreds of boxes in the archives of Kansas State University. Her book How America Eats was considered groundbreaking in 1960, but now it's largely unknown and out of print.

But not long ago Paddleford was a formidable figure -- arguably the originator of popular food writing in this country. Before magazines racks were devoted to cooking, before newspapers had food sections, before celebrity TV chefs were even imagined, Clementine Paddleford was Julia Child, Rachael Ray, Margaret Mead and the Food Network rolled into one. Over a writing career that spanned nearly five decades, she sought out, sampled and wrote about American regional fare. She even piloted her own single-engine plane to sample pot roast in Pennsylvania, "kornette rolls" on the passenger train that ran from Missouri to Texas, frozen bananas in Hawaii and a "Senate Salad" of lobster, avocado and grapefruit in the U.S. Capitol. Every morsel of this ended up in her writings, along with a portrait of America before television, fast food and microwave convenience united us all.

"Tell me where your grandmother came from and I can tell you how many kinds of pie you serve for Thanksgiving," she wrote in How America Eats. "In the Midwest two is the usual, mince and pumpkin. In the South no pie but wine jelly, tender and trembling, topped with whipped cream. Down East it's a threesome, cranberry, mince and pumpkin, a sliver of each, and sometimes, harking back to the old days around Boston, four kinds of pie were traditional for this feast occasion -- mince, cranberry, pumpkin and a kind called Marlborough, a glorification of everyday apple."

To be sure, there are some -- mostly food writers and editors -- who remember who Paddleford was and what she accomplished, and these faithful have conferred on her something of a cult status and kept How America Eats among the most requested out-of-print books. One day last month the online bookseller Alibris listed 15 copies, including one signed by the author with "light edge wear . . . pieces missing and soil marks" for $480.

Clementine Paddleford (Perhaps her mother was channeling Beatrix Potter? The name is a near twin of Jemima Puddle-Duck.) was born in 1898 in tiny Stockdale, Kan. In her teens, lacking any immediate role models, she fixed on the notion of becoming a journalist, writing gossipy squibs about local worthies for the Daily Chronicle of nearby Manhattan, Kan. She earned a degree in "industrial journalism" from Kansas State Architectural College then lit out for New York, enrolling in the Columbia School of Journalism and taking night classes at New York University. Young, alone and utterly undeterred, she found a room in a boarding house and started writing snippets and bits for the old New York Sun and New York Telegram.

Over the next few years she wrote and networked her way into a job as woman's editor for Farm & Fireside, a semi-monthly magazine featuring earnest advice for housewives about cleaning, cooking, beauty and nutrition for "better babies." Her big break came in 1936 when she was hired by the New York Herald-Tribune to be a food editor and writer in what was called the paper's "Home Institute." Four years later she added to her workload and her reputation by creating a weekly column on food for This Week magazine, a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement. To all this, she eventually added a monthly "Food Flashes" column for Gourmet magazine.

She would expand and redefine all these roles over the next 30 years, becoming well known, well paid and widely traveled. She approached her subject with enormous seriousness -- part journalist, part historian, but fundamentally an anthropologist, revealing how Americans lived by chronicling what they ate. In 1946 she covered Winston Churchill's visit to Fulton, Mo., scene of his famous Iron Curtain speech. (The great man was served country ham, fried chicken and twice-baked potatoes.) She covered the coronation feast for Queen Elizabeth in 1953 (a six-course meal that included turtle soup, roast Angus beef and a puff pastry dessert called Maids of Honor). She wangled recipes from famous restaurants (cheesecake from Lindy's delicatessen, Hollandaise sauce from Antoine's in the French Quarter, Caesar salad from the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center), which are reprinted in Hometown Appetites. (A note at the end of the book explains that all printed recipes were tested and some updated for contemporary tastes and ingredients.) Her writing style was a gush of enthusiasm and adjectives, with a tone of earnestness evoking a far less cynical era. Describing, for example, those kornette rolls served in a 1949 railroad dining car, Paddleford writes: "So tiny -- one, two, three are not too many of these dainty corn morsels. 'Kornette boy! This way, please!' Here's something that should be eaten in sets of a dozen."

Paddleford's ascent brings home her single-minded ambition at a time when few women put career first. After she left Manhattan, Kan., for that other Manhattan, there was a marriage to an ardent Kansas swain, but Paddleford never stopped writing and traveling long enough to actually live with him, and eventually he gave up on her. By all accounts she was a rather indifferent cook. She took on the role of guardian for the adolescent daughter of a dying friend but had no children of her own. There were, over the years, loyal friends and apparently plenty of lovers (her otherwise exhaustive diaries are discreet on this point). There was also a grim diagnosis of throat cancer, when she was only 33. Remarkably, she survived, but thereafter had a silver tracheotomy tube in her neck, which she disguised with a dark ribbon tied to look like a choker. Honestly though, the black-and-white photos in the book reveal that her dress in general was so outlandish that you might not notice the ribbon.

In her prime, Paddleford had 12 million readers. When she died in 1967, her obituary ran in all of the country's major newspapers. Her reputation has faded ever since, eclipsed now by legions of more sophisticated food writers and celebrity chefs. This biography, by Kelly Alexander, a food writer and editor at Saveur magazine, and Cynthia Harris, an archivist at Kansas State University, is an energetic attempt to rescue Paddleford from obscurity. The story they have unearthed proves as illuminating of the era as it does of the woman herself. It also whets the appetite to go back and read the real thing. ยท

Belle Elving is a former editor of the Washington Post Home section.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company