Friday, November 21, 2014

Eating American

Sheila Hibben (1888–1964)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (right), with Mrs. Hugh Easley of St. Louis and her 3-year-old daughter, eat a five-cent subsidized “relief” meal at the Daughters of the American Depression conference, Washington, DC, May 14, 1950. Harris & Ewing Photographers. Library of Congress.
In the waning days of the Great Depression, LIFE magazine commissioned a lengthy profile of Eleanor Roosevelt, which appeared in its February 5, 1940, issue. The article recounted when, during her first year in the White House, the First Lady brought Sheila Hibben to Washington to share recipes for classic American regional specialties with the staff. Hibben, who became a writer out of necessity after the death of her husband in 1928, had just published The National Cookbook, a best seller in 1932, and would soon become The New Yorker’s first food critic. During Hibben’s tenure at the White House there was a bit of a kerfuffle when Major, the Roosevelts’ German Shepherd, bit her on the ankle. Upon hearing of the attack, the First Lady sternly addressed the maid. “Mamie, that settles it. From now on we will have iodine kept in this room.”

The incident with the dog proved to be an omen: Hibben would face an even more intractable adversary in the First Lady herself, whose primary concern was to promote an aura of practical austerity. According to the LIFE reporter, Hibben failed to convince Mrs. Roosevelt, “whose one idea seemed to be to expound the recipes at her press conferences, that the dishes were meant to be eaten rather than printed.” Laura Shapiro, in a 2010 New Yorker article, adds, “Hibben had a culinary sensibility that was half a century ahead of its time”: she advocated locally grown ingredients, convenience cooking, and well-prepared yet simple recipes for savory dishes. “To Eleanor, the disadvantages of this approach were clear,” Shapiro continues. “Such a project didn’t carry any of the larger messages about agriculture, the food industry, proper diet, and sensible parenting.” So Hibben and the First Lady parted ways—and for the next twelve years White House visitors, and the President himself, endured the regime of “dreary cuisine” that became an unfortunate part of the Roosevelt legend.

Hibben was far ahead of her time in another way. In 1937 Zora Neale Hurston published Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was greeted by mostly negative notices and poor sales. The novel wouldn’t become a commercial and critical success for another half century, but the month it appeared Hibben wrote for The New York Herald Tribune one of the few unreservedly favorable reviews, in part because the novel appealed to her own interest in American regional and ethnic diversity:
Here is an author who writes with her head as well as with her heart, and at a time when there seems to be some principle of physics set dead against the appearance of novelists who give out a cheerful warmth and at the same time write with intelligence. . . . There are homely, unforgettable phrases of colored people . . . ; there is a gigantic and magnificent picture of a hurricane in the Everglades country of Florida; and there is a flashing, gleaming riot of black people, with a limitless exuberance of humor, and a wild, strange sadness. . . . Mostly, though, there is life—a swarming, passionate life.
This Story of the Week selection showcases Hibben’s love of “back-to-the-country cooking,” as well as the humor and liveliness readers will find in all her writing. As a bonus, the last page features her recipe from The National Cookbook for “Cape Cod Turkey”—which, our readers will quickly learn, doesn’t contain a smidgen of turkey.

Notes: The opening lines of the selection refer to Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, who together began a movement of literary criticism in the 1890s known as the New Humanism.

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Regional cooking has struck New York. And with such a bang that soon nobody will be left to say, when the subject is brought up: “You mean regional planning?” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.