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Clementine Paddleford’s ‘How America Eats’ Chronicled the Tastes of a Nation

The book offers a vivid portrait of midcentury regional cooking and a glimpse of its proudly idiosyncratic author

If Clementine Paddleford, who reigned as food editor at the New York Herald Tribune from 1936 until the paper died 30 years later, had not been a real person, she could only have existed in a comic strip.

Imagine, please, a woman with big blue eyes and fluffy blonde hair, dressed in flowing skirts and billowing capes like a proto-Stevie Nicks and accompanied by her cat/sidekick Miss Pussy Willow (at least until Pussy Willow expired in the newsroom, in Paddleford’s inbox), traveling around the country not in quest of truth, justice, or the American Way, but the very best recipes American cooks had to offer. She would reprint them in her column “How America Eats” for This Week, the Herald Tribune’s nationally distributed Sunday supplement, and later, in 1960, in a cookbook also called How America Eats that was updated and republished in 2011 as The Great American Cookbook.

Paddleford occasionally traveled in her own private plane, a Piper Cub she was able to afford on her newspaper salary. Her grasp of navigation equipment was shaky, so she liked to fly close enough to the ground that she could follow the roads. Once she arrived in a new town, the hunt would begin. By her own account, she was relentless and also shameless in her pursuit of recipes. She’d make inquiries about the best cooks in town, and then she’d make the rounds, popping into restaurant kitchens, chatting over coffee with housewives, talking her way into local festivals and church suppers and once the galley of a submarine. (She also tapped her vast network of fellow food editors and sucked up to society ladies and local celebrities.) Over the course of her career, she visited and collected recipes from all 50 states and estimated she’d traveled more than 800,000 miles. James Beard said she was “surely the getting-aroundest person I have ever known except for Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Back in New York, Paddleford divided her time between a townhouse on the Upper East Side and a country house in Connecticut (also paid for by her newspaper salary — those were the days) with her ward, the orphaned daughter of an old friend from her early reporting days in Chicago. After an early and secret marriage to and divorce from her college sweetheart, a foolish man who wanted her to live with him in Texas after she’d been offered a job in New York, Paddleford never remarried. Instead she had a series of lovers, one of whom asked her to bury his ashes, only she wasn’t sure if she needed a special permit, so she kept them in her country house beside the bottle of bourbon. (She later claimed he sometimes made his presence known by breaking highball glasses.)

And what did this celebrated food tourist like to cook when left to her own devices? Trick question! Clementine Paddleford didn’t cook. She had a maid for that, and a full test kitchen staff at the Herald Tribune, just like the Barbara Stanwyck character in Christmas in Connecticut — who was modeled, some claim, after Paddleford herself.

Alas, not much remains of Paddleford’s physical presence. Even though the first golden age of television was in full swing during her reign at the Herald Tribune, Paddleford refused to make any appearances on screen, or on the radio. She’d suffered a bout of throat cancer in her early 30s which left her with only part of her larynx, a permanent breathing tube, and a distinctive raspy — some said “eerie” — voice. She always wore a black velvet choker to hide the tube, and the capes probably served as camouflage as well. She claimed her voice was an asset, according to her biographers Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris: “People never forget me.”

This may have been true, but no one who knew Paddleford personally seemed to want to share many personal details beyond these quirky stories when Alexander and Harris were researching their 2008 biography Hometown Appetites. Paddleford had donated a voluminous personal archive to the library of her alma mater, Kansas State University, but she had apparently destroyed all of her non-business correspondence and her diaries, if she’d ever had any. It’s possible to know where Paddleford was at any given point in her life, but not what she thought or felt about it.

We don’t even know what Paddleford liked to eat when she wasn’t working. As a child on a farm in Kansas at the turn of the 20th century, she’d loved strawberries and wrote about them frequently as an adult, and her friend R.W. Apple wrote in a reminiscence in the New York Times that Paddleford could “produce competent steaks, pastas, curries and peach Melba,” but that’s not quite the same as “Clem really loved the pepperoni pizza at Lombardi’s.” (Paddleford, incidentally, educated America on the proper pronunciation of the word “pizza” back in 1939.) Which is maybe why Paddleford comes across more like a comic strip than a fully realized human being: There’s no sense of an inner life to distract us from her many eccentricities. All that’s left of her is her body of work. But what a body of work it was.

“Clementine Paddleford would not have been able to distinguish skillfully scrambled eggs from a third-rate omelet,” claimed Craig Claiborne, her rival at the New York Times. But this was untrue. Paddleford knew how to eat. She just wasn’t a home economist like many of the other female food editors at the time. She was a reporter who had discovered very early in her career that a woman’s place in the newspaper was in the women’s pages, and had, by all appearances, made her peace with it. After all, she got to travel the country and eventually the world at the newspaper’s expense and got to be present at important historical events, like Winston Churchill’s visit to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri — even if, instead of reporting on his Iron Curtain speech, she had to write about what everyone ate (Callaway County ham and fried chicken with twice-baked potatoes, organized by Mrs. Frances McCluer, wife of the college president).

Any resentment she may have felt certainly doesn’t show in her writing, which bounces along with so much enthusiasm for traveling and eating — did Paddleford ever meet a stranger or eat a meal she didn’t like? — that her sentences sometimes veer out of control and neglect essential things like verbs: “Blazing hot the sun out there on the Bay Shore Road out of San Francisco.” (Paddleford was, apparently, deeply resistant to editing and, by the time she started writing How America Eats, had enough clout to get away with it.)

More often, though, her writing style is a delight, chatty and fun, like a letter from an especially adventurous and gregarious friend. It’s evident through How America Eats that Paddleford considered it her responsibility to serve as the eyes and ears and taste buds of readers who might never get to visit the towns and states that she traveled through, and she took it seriously. Her writing is full of tastes and smells and sounds and a little bit of poetry, like this description of maple syrup-making in Vermont:

“Ira Aldrich was a ghost shadow in the steam, skimming the foam. Laughter and talk, rattle of spoon against cup, while the bubbling frothing syrup made a music quite its own: oo-ieoo-ie, like a faraway whistle heard through a fog.”

She takes care to maintain an impersonally personal tone. She mentions no regular traveling companions or friends back home, has no in-jokes with her readers, shares no personal anecdotes. When she says “I” in her dispatches, she’s not specifically Clementine Paddleford, New York Herald Tribune food editor. Instead, she’s a stand-in for you, one of her 12 million readers: You’re right there with her at that maple sugar boil, and shortly afterward, you’ll join Ira’s wife Bea in pouring the fresh syrup into pails of snow to make candy. She gives that same immediacy to a salmon-fishing excursion on the Columbia River or a barbecue in Albuquerque or an afternoon in Liberal, Kansas, “self-styled Pancake Hub of the Universe.”

The Great American Cookbook, edited by Kelly Alexander, intersperses Paddleford’s original travel stories between the recipes, which have been updated for modern cooks, including more specific language (“300 degrees” instead of “a slow oven”) and eliminating the canned vegetables and condensed soups in favor of fresh ingredients. “I feel certain that if Clem were alive today,” Alexander writes, “she would be a dedicated locavore.” The thing is a beast, more than 800 pages, and includes recipes from all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. Some states get more representation than others: Paddleford adored Florida, Louisiana, and California and had a sentimental fondness for the Midwest, but took very little interest in the Southwest or Pacific Northwest.

So how did America eat? It ate pies, lots of them, and plenty of beans and chowder. Fried chicken shows up quite a bit, and so do oysters, but there are almost no fresh vegetables. (Alexander theorizes in her introduction that maybe Paddleford and her interview subjects assumed that everyone knew how to cook peas or make a salad, so there wasn’t much point in sharing a recipe.) Alexander edited out most of the Jell-O salads, which I think is sad since they were such a huge part of American culture in the 1950s when Paddleford was doing most of her collecting, but I do see her point: Paddleford’s true interest was regional food, things that you couldn’t just find in any American supermarket, especially not back then, especially local oddities like Marlborough pie and scrapple — both the Pennsylvania and Indiana versions.

The food writer Molly O’Neill claims Paddleford was the first to use the term “regional cooking,” though other writers would pick it up, most notably her friend James Beard, who was calling for a distinct American cuisine as early as 1949 when he published The Fireside Cook Book. (American Cookery, his definitive word on the subject, didn’t come out till 1974.) But while Beard was, above all, a cook who was interested in what he called the “terroir” of American food, or how Americans used the natural ingredients around them, Paddleford was so indifferent to cooking that she once printed a recipe for molasses cookies without the molasses. Her own food stories were as much about the people who prepared the food as the dishes themselves, and while she did get excited about seasonal ingredients like filbert nuts and peaches straight off the tree, she was even more interested in the people who picked them — or at least the women who turned those raw ingredients into cakes and pies and preserves.

She was interested in immigrant cooking, too, and collected a large number of Mexican recipes, surprising since she was writing in an era before tacos had become America’s favorite food. Unfortunately, most of these recipes come filtered through white people who claim to have gotten them from their cooks, who Paddleford didn’t bother to speak to. She also didn’t appear to speak to any Black cooks or question the romanticization of Southern plantation culture. That is not surprising, but was this Paddleford herself, or Paddleford bowing to reader expectations? Again, we don’t know.

The other unfortunate thing about these recipes is that they are not very good. Either that, or I chose poorly and landed on a serious cooking cold streak. The frijoles con queso from California tasted all right, but they were very, very dry. So were the citrus spareribs, also from California, which, additionally, didn’t taste remotely citrussy, even though they were covered in slices of lemon and orange.

The one that really broke my heart, though, was burnt sugar cake from the Dallas County Farm Homemakers’ Market in Texas. I had been curious about burnt sugar cake for years, since I first read about it in a book set on a farm in Missouri in the early 1900s. I had hoped it would taste like a slightly scorched marshmallow. Instead what I got, after two hours of standing in front of the stove toasting and stirring approximately two pounds of sugar, was something so sickly sweet, it was inedible. There is something deeply sad about a slice of cake sitting unfinished beside the kitchen sink. I’m not sure what went wrong: unclear instructions on the cooks’ part or bad cooking on my part. Or maybe the American palate has really changed. I can’t blame Paddleford, though. She was only the messenger.

I do wish, though, that I could eat all those things the way she described them, especially an old-fashioned Kansas strawberry shortcake from her childhood (perhaps this was her Rosebud?): “Shortcakes on meat platters brought whole to the table to cut before your eyes. The top berries cold and sweet like wine; the crushed berries in between warm and tasting of sugar and sun, the shortcake crunchy and rich with butter.”

Maybe nothing ever tasted that good.

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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