Thursday, March 19, 2015

In Defense of Clementine Paddleford

A Gourmet cover from 1950
The other day I wrote about the book Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Foodwriter who Chronicled How America Ate, which was the selection for my culinary book club. Last night's discussion of the book was a lot of fun. We talked about the accomplishments of Paddleford, and about her reputation -- as emphasized in the book -- for using very flowery and over-the-top language.

Paddleford as
shown at the top
of her Gourmet
When I got home, I looked up her writings online, and found that quite a few of her columns, titled "Food Flashes" from Gourmet magazine were available in their archive. Note: others that used to be there have disappeared.

Each column in Gourmet included a series of descriptions of new food products -- both imports and local ones. Here are some quotes that I enjoyed, which I think illustrate what's fun and breezy not really so florid as all that.

From July, 1951:
"Mighty like a rose and it is rose, a rose-petal honey made by a recipe taken from the famous Martha Washington cookbook, the original copy now owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. 
"Martha kept a stock of this honey on hand, and one garden of red roses was grown at Mount Vernon just for its making. 
"This pale honey of the delicate rose flavor is made almost exactly like that brewed by Martha. 
"The maker is Mrs. Abraham Elkon, a former food columnist for French and Canadian newspapers, who loves experimenting with food. While perusing the Martha Washington cookbook, she took a fancy to the honey recipe. 
"The honey is processed with rose petals, which are purchased in quantities, 'scummed' carefully, and allowed to cool slowly. In accordance with modern tastes, she has reduced the rose flavor slightly. For centuries after the Crusades, rose was one of the most popular flavors, Rose petals, rose crystals, rose waters, were a frequent addition to sauces and cakes. The ancestral palates were more used to this flavor than ours. Knowing this, Mrs. Elkon makes her honey most delicate of the rose, much less heavily scented than Martha turned out for George. But that flavor is 'something very special,' one taster wrote." (source)
From December, 1950:
"Merry Christmas, Happy New Year! Say it in Mexican, say it with tamales—four kinds of tamales, kit-packed, yours for gift-giving, to keep handy for those special occasions. 
"The tamale, did you know, is American in origin, the favorite food of the Aztecs? Long ago it went marching with Montezuma's troops, a sort of a K ration convenient to carry, something to eat hot or cold. 
"Tamales now, as then, vary in size and in content, but one general procedure is followed for all. A clean corn husk is opened and spread with a layer of soft-cooked masa, a mash made from corn and resembling corn bread. Over this goes a layer of chicken or beef or mashed dried fruits, and the husk is rolled. The husk performs the same function as a wax paper sandwich bag, enclosing and protecting the rolled sandwich." (source)
From December, 1944 -- wartime:
"Again Johnny Doughboy has first call on the drumsticks. When Thanksgiving Day dawns, the ambrosial odors of roasting turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy will rise from camp kitchens round the world. Less turkey for civilians, one-quarter pound less a person than we had last winter, when it was three pounds apiece. This year it will be half a drumstick less for the plate. But listen where the missing bit's going. Prisoners of war are to have turkey for Christmas dinner—last year it was chicken. 
"The cranberry crop is the shortest since 1921, or 53 million pounds, 16 million less than last season. At least a third of this will be going to the military. Oysters are on the skimpy side, but a few more than last autumn. There they lie in their beds, fat and willing, but there's not enough labor to tong and pack the crop. 
"Otherwise, the great-day feast is the usual bounty, war or no war. Pass the mashed potatoes piled in a high, light drift. Help yourself to yams candied in their own rich blood. There are large supplies of potatoes, both the white and the gold. No onion famine this winter —onion crops are breaking records. Mash the purple-tinted turnip. Serve the parsnip of sweet, earthy taste. Native squash is here to celebrate the day in proper manner. 
"Traditionalists insist that the Thanksgiving pie should be of three kinds, pumpkin, mince, and apple—a sliver of each. This year one pie is enough. 'What moistens the lips, what brightens the eye, what calls Kick the past like the rich pumpkin pie?' The pumpkin crop got hurt this fall by the drought in New Jersey and Maryland, where this native vegetable is grown by the hundreds of acres. Even so, there will be pumpkin enough to put a pie on every American table. Mincemeat is in better supply this year than for two holidays past. More apples, for one reason, plenty of raisins. And a line apple crop means a fine cider flow." (source)
Each column was several times as long as what I've quoted, but I think I've given a suggestion of her writing style. Despite the accusations of recent writers, I find this style very amusing. I think I can see how it attracted readers to her columns in the New York Herald Tribune, Gourmet, and other publications. It's dated, for sure, but I defend her against the most exaggerated criticisms!

I also read two articles about her: one from the New York Times about her personal papers that reside in the library at Kansas by R.W. Apple (2005), another from the Saturday Evening Post, "Clementine Paddleford: Her Passion is Food" (1949). And I've ordered a copy of her most important book, How America Eats (1960), which will arrive in the next few weeks. So I will have more to say eventually.


Maureen said...

I'd love to read her work and I bet she was a great cook too.

Mae Travels said...

Hi Maureen,
The interesting thing about Paddleford is that she wasn't much of a cook. She collected recipes when she interviewed people around the world, but her employer (the NY Herald Trib) maintained a big and well-staffed test kitchen to prepare them for publication! So she was more of an executive supervising the whole operation and writing the columns, though all were published over her byline.

Debra Eliotseats said...

And I thought I had vintage copies of Gourmet. :). Have never heard of her so I appreciated the info (and your straight forward writing)!

Mae Travels said...

Hi Debra,
Actually I don't have any old magazines, all is from the Gourmet archive online, which still has a considerable number of articles -- though as I said, some have gone missing that appear to have been there before.

I'd love to see posts about your copies!

Jeanie said...

Fascinating! I love her writing style -- it's just fun. I'll have to see if I have any old Gourmets or if they got tossed, but I'm sure I don't have any back that far!

Mae Travels said...

Jeanie -- she was active until some time in the 1960s. So maybe you have one with her material in it. The UofM library has all the back issues from the entire run of the magazine EXCEPT March 1941!