Think of Nelson Algren, and many images come to mind—Chicago's unappreciated genius, champion of the poor and disenfranchised, lover of Simone de Beauvoir, author ofThe Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side—but the author of a cookbook? Here it is: the never-before-published America Eats, a delightful, thoroughly entertaining look at who we are and what we love to eat.
The origins of America Eats are as fascinating as the book itself. In the late 1930s Nelson Algren joined such writers as Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Margaret Alexander, and Arna Bontemps in the employ of the Illinois Writers Project, a branch of the federal Works Progress Administration. Algren's assignment: to collect information for the national "America Eats" program, a pioneering enterprise whose members hoped to produce a series of regional guides describing types of immigration, settlement, and customs as these factors related to the universal language of food. Algren completed his project, a look at the foodways of the Midwest, but by the early 1940s the fruits of "America Eats" had been filed away as the government mobilized for war.
Now at long last Algren's America Eats is published as one of the inaugural volumes in the Iowa Szathmáry Culinary Arts Series. This cookbook, part anecdotal history, part culinary commentary, is an engaging romp through the attitudes and activities surrounding food in the Midwest. An enticing and useful feature of the book is an all-new recipe section tested in the kitchens of the Culinary Arts Division of Johnson &Wales University under the watchful eye of Chef Laureate Louis Szathmáry.
Those same interviewing skills that led to Algren's successful depiction of Chicago's inner-city residents served him well as he spoke with a variety of cooks, casual and accomplished, and gathered all kinds of recipes, tried and traditional. Algren recorded it all in his inimitable style, and modern readers are richer for his efforts. From descriptions of the rituals at an Indiana family reunion ("When a slacking off in the first rush of eating is indicated by the gradual resumption of conversation, the servers start a second attack, urging everyone to have another helping of everything") to the holiday specialty on a Minnesota immigrant's table, lutefisk ("Any newcomer present will be assured, 'You won't like it, nobody likes lutefisk at first'"), America Eats offers all readers a true feast.