Sunday, November 26, 2017

WPA Guidebook Dishes Up Tasty Tidbits

Men plant celery in a large farm field in WPA photo from the 1930s
This photo of men planting celery in Florida is from Florida,
A Guide to the Southernmost State. 
(Photo credit: Farm Security Administration)
Since we're in the season of celebratory eating, I have a good excuse for venturing into one of my favorite topics. Food! Today's post looks at some culinary and agricultural tidbits from mid-1930s Florida.

My source is Florida, A Guide to the Southernmost State. Published in 1939, it was a Works Project Administration initiative written by authors in the Federal Writers' Project. Briefly, both federal programs gave people the dignity of jobs during the Great Depression. 

The writers' project created guidebooks to the United States. In doing so, the authors captured - and preserved - portraits in time. I treasure my copy. It's a snapshot of Florida in the 1930s. Many modern residents and visitors wouldn't recognize the place. The book's foreward says Florida "is frequently referred to as the last American frontier." In the 1930s!

The book offers information on Florida history as well as then-modern culture. That makes it even more appealing to me.

These gleanings about food are mainly from the scenic driving tours the authors laid out for visitors.

  • In 1918, farmers in tiny Hastings earned $20 a barrel for their potatoes because there was a potato scarcity in the North (355). That's the equivalent of $352 a barrel in 2017. I can't find comparison pricing for modern times because sources seem to talk about bushels, not barrels. But a 2016 online article in Potato Grower magazine mentions $6 for a 100-lb. sack of potatoes. Factoid: Hastings is still known as Florida's potato capital.
  • In springtime, even yards of city houses were planted with celery and lettuce in Sanford, "capital of the Florida celery belt" (360). 
  • 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of crystallized fruit peel were produced every week during the winter season in Davenport's Citrus Candy Factory (367). Let me say, if you've never tasted homemade or locally made crystallized citrus peel, you are missing a treat. I made some from tangerine peels before my Robinson tangerine tree succumbed to citrus greening. Yum. 
  • Here's what was in typical lunch buckets of workers at a cypress mill in Sanderson: cornbread, black-eyed peas boiled with salt pork, and a jar of cane syrup. The worker poured the syrup into the lunch bucket's lid and sopped it up with the cornbread. Occasionally, the workers ate greens and bacon, pork chops and beans, biscuits, boiled sweet potatoes, and cowpeas (field peas) (423).
  • An "All-Day Sing" was a big social event in Chipley. Winners were determined by popular acclaim ("volume and enthusiasm"). At noon, everyone stopped to eat the dinners they'd brought from home: fried chicken, rabbit, squirrel, vegetables, coffee, and "mounds of cornbread" (445).
Nobody was eating celery or white potatoes. The different sections of Florida were somewhat isolated from one another, but still. I also don't get why entries about backwoods gatherings or work lunches, in this book or others, never seem to mention fresh citrus as a dessert. 

It's all enough to make me hungry. For food ... and for more social history.

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