ROCKINGHAM, Vt. (AP) — During the Great Depression, the United States sent laborers and artists into the country as part of the huge Works Progress Administration (WPA). The program did everything from building roads, parks and bridges to painting murals in Vermont post offices; in all, 8.5 million people were put to work in the Roosevelt administration's New Deal program.
One little known aspect of the WPA was the "America Eats" project, in which writers were hired to "define real American food," according to a history of the program. But the "America Eats" program never was published: its deadline came only a few days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the hundreds of food essays ended up forgotten in boxes in the Library of Congress until recently, according to a history of the project.
In Vermont, two writers — Cora Moore and Roaldus Richmond — toured the countryside, documenting what people were eating and what people were making in their kitchens. Stephen Perkins, executive director of the Vermont Historical Society, described the program to a gathering on Aug. 4 at the Rockingham Meeting House as part of the 113th annual pilgrimage to the national historic landmark, the oldest surviving example of a colonial meeting house in Vermont.
Perkins said "America Eats" was a nationwide effort to document what people were eating — even during the hard times of The Depression. And in Vermont, Perkins said, tables often were filled with baked beans, or green beans, or Indian pudding, and an assortment of "relishes," which he said were what 21st century eaters would call pickles. Back then, he said, Vermont cooks pickled everything — from butternuts to pumpkin.
Perkins said that when he was growing up in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, his family had baked beans every Saturday night — and it was a strong Vermont tradition. And it wasn't just beans for Saturday night, he said, but the beans would also be eaten Sunday morning for breakfast.
Strangely, Perkins said there wasn't much written about what is considered Vermont's major contribution to culinary delight: maple syrup.
The writers tackled the issue of what to call the evening meal — dinner or supper. "In Vermont farmhouses and village homes there are three meals a day, breakfast, dinner and supper, and dinner comes at 12 o'clock noon, which is as it should be for men who rise early and work hard. It is characteristic that Vermonters care not at all that this custom may be derided as old-fashioned, out-moded and lacking in sophistication," wrote author Roaldus Richmond, Perkins told the gathering.
In fact, Perkins noted, quoting Richmond, the one detailed reference to maple sugaring was about the phrase "sugar off" and how it had entered the Vermont language as a phrase to describe bringing things to fruition, as in to "sugar off" or complete a business deal. There were the occasional words describing "golden maple syrup" but little beyond that, Perkins said.
One of the Vermont writers participating in the "America Eats" program was St. Albans Messenger reporter Cora Moore, who Perkins said wrote descriptively of the food she saw on people's tables.
Perkins said famed author Kenneth Roberts of Maine also was part of the WPA "America Eats" program, writing about food in Maine that could easily have described Vermont.
Perkins noted that Vermonters of the 1930s liked their green beans cooked until they turned brown, something he was familiar with in his own family.
Members of the Rockingham Meeting House Association took the food history lesson one step further on Sunday and cooked some of the popular foods of the 1930s, sharing them with the public before and after Perkins' talk.
There were different varieties of baked beans, using soldier beans and kidney beans; coleslaw with buttermilk dressing, complete with chopped American cheese; and spiced currant relish, which was served on Vermont Common Crackers. There was Baked Indian Pudding, haymakers' switchel (a ginger and vinegar-laced drink) and iced tea. For dessert, there was strawberry or peach shortcake for the warm August Sunday afternoon.
Dorothy Read of Bellows Falls made one of the large pots of baked beans, as well as the coleslaw, based on recipes Moore had collected. Read also made a currant relish, which she served on small round crackers from the nearby Vermont Country Store. The spiced currants relish recipes and others were collected by Moore, with the advice that it was "much liked with meat." The currants were spiced with cloves and cinnamon, as well as brown sugar and vinegar.
Deborah Wright, also of Bellows Falls, made strawberry or peach shortcake. The historical recipe called for the shortcake or biscuit to be layered with butter, baked and then separated for more butter and fruit. Then it was back in the oven and, once warm, topped with heavy cream, but not whipped, as is the tradition now. "No heaping whipped cream on the cake, but cream served from a pitcher," Moore wrote. "Plain cream with a little sugar in it."
Information from: Brattleboro Reformer, http://www.reformer.com/