I first “met” Clementine Paddleford on a snowy and cold day at a college bookstore back in the 1970’s where I was supposed to be buying a biochemistry book. Instead, I was drawn to the cookbook sale area where I found Paddleford’s “The Best of American Cooking,” which still has the sticker on the front showing it cost me all of one dollar; a lot less expensive than that $50 biochem book and definitely more interesting.
After diving into the cookbook and doing some research on Clementine, I became completely intrigued with this amazing woman. Why had I not heard of her before? She was the original traveling food writer, way before Anthony Bourdain or any food show on the Food Network. Since that snowy day back in college, Clementine still fascinates me and I can’t seem to get enough information about her life. All I know is, someone needs to make a movie about this remarkable woman. Clementine is like Julia Child, Amelia Earhart, and Margaret Mead combined into one bundle of energy and enthusiasm for the food world.
Clementine Paddleford was born in the farm country of Stockdale, Kansas in 1898. Her interest in writing began at an early age and she later attended Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University) where she pursued a degree in Industrial Journalism. Her career led her to Chicago and New York, where she wrote for various publications including Gourmet magazine, and the New York Herald Tribune. Clementine didn’t just write recipes, she dug into the history of the recipes and met with the people who cooked them. She also went along with the times, writing about making meals stretch during the Depression, to quick dinners for busy women in the 1960’s. Paddleford died in 1967 and bequeathed all of her work to her alma mater, Kansas State. Her boxes of information and memorabilia were transferred to the university where, sadly, they sat untouched for thirty-four years – that is until recently.
In 2002, two women began their quest to resurrect the memory of this incredible woman. Kelly Alexander, then a food writer for Saveur magazine, and Cynthia Harris, an archivist at Kansas State, teamed up to write an article about Paddleford, which led to a book about her life, and now this wonderful cookbook.
This newly released cookbook is a must for any foodie on your Christmas list. The huge book is the culmination of more than twenty years of Clementine’s efforts. She traveled by train, plane, automobile, on foot, and even by mule to bring the American public recipes and comments about what people were cooking across the country. She even received her pilot’s license so she could travel quickly to many places. In 1953, Time magazine named Clementine the country’s “Best-Known Food Editor.”
First published as “How America Eats” in 1960, and out-of-print for thirty years, this revised version offers more than 500 of Clementine’s best recipes, all adapted for the contemporary kitchen. The book’s chapters are divided into regions and various states of New England, the Middle Atlantic, the South, Florida, Creole Country, the Southwest, the Midwest, and the Far West. As Paddleford biographer Kelly Alexander writes in the introduction, “This is the place to find the recipes that we consider truly “American.” Within these pages are the first nationally published recipes for the now-totemic dishes we all know and love: Key Lime Pie, New England Boiled Dinner, Southern Fried Chicken, New York Cheesecake, Caesar Salad, Oyster Pan Roast, and Brunswick Stew. Behind all these recipes are extraordinary stories, which makes this not just a cookbook but also a portrait of how America ate then, and how the recipes are just as much of a treasure in today’s kitchen.
Being from the Midwest, the first page I turned to was Illinois, my home state. There are six recipes from restaurants and home cooks. The first I made was the “Wild Rice Stuffing” from Chicago’s famous Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel.
The stuffing includes chicken livers, mushrooms, and sherry wine. As Paddleford described it, “The Pump Room’s wild rice dressing willy-nilly lifts any barnyard squab or chicken to heavenly levels.”
The next dish I tried was the “Potato Kugel,” a recipe from a luncheon club comprised of twelve friends of the Sisterhood of the Beth Israel Temple in the suburban Chicago town of Albany Park. Both of these dishes graced our Thanksgiving table this year.
Clementine Paddleford opened a whole new door to how America cooks, and reminded us that there is a story to every recipe. So much has changed in the food world since her death. There are daily cooking shows, traveling food shows, extreme eating shows, Iron Chefs, Top Chefs, and even a Hell’s Kitchen of the restaurant world. America is obsessed with food and food shows, and we all have Clementine to thank for starting it all. One of my missions in life is to travel to Kansas State to view all of Clementine’s life works. What I wouldn’t give to click my heels three times right now and be transported to Kansas. In the meantime, this amazing book will do just fine.