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Food Lessons From the U.S. Government

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On July 4, award-winning chef Jose Andres opened a pop-up restaurant in Washington, DC. America Eats Tavern pays homage to the culinary history of the U.S., with proceeds supporting the Foundation for the National Archives. The restaurant opened in conjunction with the National Archives’ “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?”—an exhibit that explores how the Government has affected America’s food consumption.

Both the restaurant and exhibit will be open for six months.

The WPA’s America Eats! Project

America Eats Tavern takes its name from the Works Progress Administration’s 1930s writing project, which paid laid-off writers and reporters to document food and culinary experiences of various regions throughout the country.

Funding for the project was cut before it was completed and unpublished manuscripts from contributors across the United States were sent to the Library of Congress. Author Pat Willard compiled some of those essays in her 2008 book, America Eats: On the Road with the WPA. Willard quotes a memo from a WPA supervisor who describes the goal of the project thusly: “If we can make Americans realize that they have the best table in the world, we shall have helped to deepen national patriotism.”

The final product was never intended to be a cookbook, though recipes do appear in many of the manuscripts. Rather, the essays were supposed to capture how Americans ate, and the entire culinary experience. (A similar project today might make mention of the recent pop-up restaurant trend, which has been popularized by the likes of chef Ludo Lefebvre and the Guerilla Culinary Brigade.)

The Restaurant

The downstairs level at America Eats Tavern features such American staples as hot dogs, lobster rolls, and cheesesteaks, while the upstairs dining room is more formal. The menu includes some favorites from past presidents, including Clinton Gazpacho and Eisenhower Stew, and a short history lesson about every item. For instance:

Shrimp ‘N’ Anson Mills Grits (Jamestown, 1607): Native Americans first taught the colonists to hull corn into hominy, creating one of the first truly American foods. Here we use creaming Anson Mills grits, carefully milled from rediscovered heirloom corn.

Spoonbread with Oyster Ice Cream and Caviar (Eliza Leslie, the Lady’s Receipt Book, 1847): First named as Indian Puffs, this spoonbread is so light it could almost be a soufflé. The ice cream was inspired by one of Mark Twain’s favorite snacks.

Buffalo Wings (Buffalo, 1964): A late-night inspiration by Teressa Belissimo to impress her bar-tending son and his hungry friends. Rather than throw the wings into a stock, Teressa transformed them into something fried and spicy. They were an immediate hit.

Chesapeake Crabcakes with Pickled Watermelon Salad (Lord Baltimore Hotel, 1932): Just four years after opening, the landmark Baltimore hotel published the first known recipe for this Chesapeake favorite.

The Exhibit

“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” is open through Jan. 3 and features an impressive collection of posters, photographs, and documents related to food production and consumption in the United States. The exhibit takes visitors back to a time when butter and fortified margarine were promoted as an essential daily food group and Americans were encouraged to eat cottage cheese as a protein substitute for meat. Here are a few of the posters on display:

I'd like to know more about that "eat any other foods you want" part.

From the National Archives: "During World War I, the Food Administration under Herbert Hoover promoted 'Meatless Mondays.' This poster suggests cottage cheese as a protein substitute."

The Nutrition Division of the War Food Administration wouldn't go along with the term "Vitamin Donuts," which had been proposed by the Doughnut Corporation. One day...

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