Introducing the Best Food Writer You Never Heard of But Will Be Fun for You to Know
And she's my role model!
Clementine Paddleford was an insurrectionist. From the 1940s to the early 1960s she served as the chief food columnist for leading newspapers and publications: New York Herald Tribune, The Sun, The New York World-Telegram, and Farm & Fireside, and This Week and Gourmet magazines. She didn’t like to cook and let others test the hundreds of recipes she published. She wasn’t fond of dining at the new haute cuisine restaurants opening in New York after World War II. Nor was she particularly interested in the French craze that exploded after the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and became wildly fashionable with Jacqueline Kennedy in the White House.
Paddleford believed it was more important to celebrate small, often immigrant, cooks and their restaurants and was deeply interested in what constituted the American food repertoire. As soon as she and her newspapers could afford it, she crossed the country seeking out home cooks who invited her to sit down at their kitchen table and talk about their favorite recipes.
The results of her travels is How America Eats, a seminal book in the food world but one that you probably never heard of. The reason to search for a copy starts with her fine writing style, then extends most brilliantly to how she managed to coerce an agglomeration of strangers to hand over what often amounted to family heirlooms. There’s the teenager who revealed the secret to her 4-H county fair–winning carrot cake, the matriarch of one of New Orleans’ oldest families’ version of croquignoles, a Mormon church elder’s famous butterscotch cookies in Utah, and a California fruit grower’s wife’s lemon mist pie.
We all have hometown appetites. Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown they left behind. —Clementine Paddleford interviewed by Josef Israels II, Saturday Evening Post
Other books in this vein followed her path and soon eclipsed hers—most notably James Beard’s American Cookery. But Paddleford’s stands apart for me because hers is a deeper dive into the everyday nature of our food. Her work captures a view of our country’s culinary history at a time when regional traditions were about to be overtaken by European influences. It took about 20 more years for them to be revered again.
The title of Paddleford’s book reveals its worth: How a country eats—how we gather together, how we value our land’s bounty, how we hand down and savor our past—is always more enticingly important than what we eat today.
Check in on Saturday for Mrs. Mabel McKay’s angel food cake recipe. It’s a beautiful, not-too-hard-to-make, summer cake. Unlike Paddleford, I tested it. For even a lousy baker like me, it turned out beautifully.