Clementine Paddleford is not a name you're likely to recognize. But as Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris tell us in this lively and engaging biography, Paddleford, a true original, invented the genre of culinary chronicles, to the enormous delight and edification of millions of readers over a career that spanned nearly a half century.
Paddleford (1898-1967) grew up in Kansas, earned a journalism degree in 1921, and went to New York to begin her career as a writer. When that didn't work out, she moved to Chicago, where she took a number of public relations jobs, eventually writing herself into the position of household editor at Farm & Fireside National Farm Journal. A few years later, she took a similar position at the Christian Herald, and finally, in 1936, became Food Editor at the Herald Tribune, a position she held until 1966.
By the time she went to the Tribune, Paddleford had gained a reputation for a pert and personally-engaging style that stood in lively contrast to the dull, objective food reporting practiced by the home economists who dominated food writing at the time. Her articles about her forays into American kitchens around the country placed the food that people really ate (as opposed to what the food industry was telling them to eat) in the context of regional and family traditions. Every article included at least one recipe, such as "Mrs. Wilkie's Drop Biscuits," offered by the wife of Wendell Wilkie, the Republican presidential candidate who lost to Roosevelt in 1940, or the famous "Lindy's Cheesecake," beloved by patrons of the New York restaurant. "It stands half a foot tall," she wrote in her highly evocative style. "It measures one foot across. Its top is shiny as satin and baked to the gold of the frost-tinged oak... Fluffy, velvet soft, the filling dry but not too dry, an extravaganza in richness." Lavish? Embellished? Yes. But her readers ate it up. At the time of her death, twelve million people a week eagerly devoured her articles and thousands wrote to tell her so.
Paddleford's personal life is as interesting as her professional career. Secretly married to her lover in 1923 and divorced nine years later without ever living with him, she counted as friends the women journalists who were changing American newspapers and magazines. She was adamantly single and married to her work, but she adopted and raised the teenage daughter of a friend. A survivor of laryngeal cancer in a time when few people lived through the disease, she spoke with the aid of a silver tracheotomy tube she regulated with a button on her throat. Writing and research were her cures for depression and loneliness, and she simply wrote her way out of every dark corner.
Paddleford's legacy, her biographers write, is the connection she made between real food, real cooking and the traditions, family histories, and ethnic backgrounds of real people sitting down to home-cooked meals at tables across America. She may have been eclipsed by the glamorous stars who came after her: Craig Claiborne at the New York Times, Julia Child at PBS and more recently, Martha Stewart. But her 1960 book, How America Eats, is the work of a writer who understands the importance of regional American food, whether it's Maine clam chowder, Pennsylvania Dutch sauerbraten, or the humble macaroni and cheese, and pays it the attention it deserves.
And now, happily, comes Hometown Appetites, restoring Paddleford to her place in the pantheon of American food writers. It is the work of two biographers—an award-winning food writer and a university archivist—who know and respect their subject. Their book—which includes a generous helping of Paddleford's comfortable recipes—is as energetic, endearing, and informative as Paddleford herself. Kudos to Alexander and Harris for telling the story of a woman whose writing touched the lives of millions of Americans, helping us all to recognize and appreciate the extraordinary alchemy of the ordinary American kitchen. Highly recommended for women's studies, American culture, and food collections.
Kelly Alexander, formerly an editor at Saveur magazine, has written for the New York Times, Food & Wine, and many other publications. Her article on Clementine Paddleford won the James Beard Journalism Award. She is a regular contributor to NPR's "The State of Things" and teaches food writing at Duke University. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC.
Cynthia Harris is the manuscript/collections archivist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS, and is the leading authority on the Clementine Paddleford archive.
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