MATRIX has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation and Access Grant to digitize an array of materials related to food in the Great Depression. Working with Dr. Helen Veit in MSU’s Department of History and Dr. Peter Berg, head of the MSU Library’s Special Collections, and in partnership with the University of Michigan and Montana State University, MATRIX will create a digital archive that will be at a repository for an invaluable part of America’s cultural heritage and a rich scholarly and educational resource.
The 1930s are a fascinating moment to study food. At a time of economic upheaval, mass internal migrations, and the rapid industrialization of agriculture and the food supply, examining how ordinary people bought, cooked, ate, and thought about food can reveal aspects of American life that scholars still know little about. The What America Ate project will digitize and preserve an array of materials related to food in the Great Depression, starting with the original America Eats papers that until now have been scattered around the country. The America Eats project was a Depression-era jobs creation program within the Works Progress Administration, which sent about 200 writers and photographers across the country to chronicle American eating by region. Writers collected amazing stories: interviewing cooks and eaters, transcribing recipes, collecting songs and jokes and poems, and describing all manner of food customs. Administrators had planned to publish the collected essays in a big reference book on regional American food, yet almost none of the collected materials ever saw the light of day because the program was abruptly terminated weeks after America’s entry into World War II. With few exceptions, the materials have remained in obscurity ever since, unknown to most scholars and unavailable to the general public. The What America Ate project will digitize original America Eats materials now housed in the Library of Congress, the Montana State University Library, and the state archives of Kentucky, New York and North Dakota.
The What America Ate digital archive will also make two other important kinds of culinary sources accessible. The first is very rare: 200 local community and charity cookbooks produced around the country from 1930 to 1940, held in the MSU Library’s Special Collections and the University of Michigan Library’s Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive. These rare books, produced by small organizations like churches, clubs, and schools, will provide unique insight into the kinds of eating that went on in America during the Depression but didn’t always make it into formally published cookbooks. Second, the digital archive will include over 700 rare advertisements and food packaging materials produced by food companies in the 1930s from MSU’s Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Ephemera Collection, which highlight how technological and commercial forces were shaping American eating in this era.