By Adam Nemmet
My colleague Scott McMurray recently wrote an excellent post about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the program’s vital role in Depression-era rebuilding of our nation’s economy and infrastructure. I’d like to piggyback on that and write about the WPA’s vital role in my dinner last week.
Operating out of the same location as Chef José Andres’ famed Café Atlantico restaurant, which took Washington, D.C., by storm about 25 years ago, America Eats Tavern is the namesake of a 1935 WPA program that sent unemployed writers—including plenty of unknowns, but also such luminaries as Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow—to capture the unique stories, ingredients and rituals behind America’s melting pot of culinary culture. Writers traveled the country, seeking out hidden kitchens, family recipes and regional food festivals. The material was collected, but never properly exhibited or published. Most of the content has been collecting dust in the Library of Congress and National Archives for the better part of a century.
Chef Andres took the concept one step further, going back to the National Archives and putting his own unique spin on these traditional dishes. He added short historical blurbs under each listing. It took us longer to read the menu at America Eats Tavern than it did to actually eat the food, but in quick order we sampled:
· Oysters Rockefeller (created in 1899 at New Orleans’ renowned Antoine’s restaurant, the dish is named “for the richest man in the world because it tastes and looks like a million dollars”)
· Buffalo Wings (invented by a bartender’s mom who wanted to impress his late-night clientele)
· Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding (“the grandfather of today’s mac n’ cheese”)
· Cobb Salad (named after the owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant, who accidentally created the salad from a hodgepodge of fridge leftovers)
· Kentucky Burgoo (a stew once traditionally prepared with blackbird and squirrel meat)
To wash it all down, we had Franklin’s Milk Punch (from Benjamin Franklin’s 1763 recipe), Grog (sailor’s rum mixed with lime to prevent scurvy), and Switchel (a field worker’s drink made of rum, molasses, cider vinegar and ginger).