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Food Traditions in American Folklife Center Collections

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Note: This is part of a series of blog posts about the 40th Anniversary Year of the American Folklife Center. Visit this link to see them all!

40th anniversary logo for the American Folklife CenterThe American Folklife Center’s archive was founded as part of the Music Division in 1928, primarily as a repository for recordings of  American folk music and songs.  The founder, Robert Winslow Gordon, and the curators who followed, all had visions beyond the original scope. Documentation of many aspects of culture in addition to music and song found their way into the collections, as did non-US collections. By the time the archive became part of the two-year-old American Folklife Center in 1978, there was a strong desire to include ethnographic collections in all the media used for documentation and to include broad cultural documentation from all parts of the world. One example of that change in view is the documentation of food traditions as represented in the collections acquired after 1978, as well as in the field collections conducted by the Center.

Men lift large sacks from the barbecue pit onto the back of a flatbed truck.
Removing cooked meat from a barbecue pit. Part of the trench pit can be seen in the background as two men lift a sheet of metal off the top to retrieve the meat. The meat is protected by layers of cheesecloth and burlap. Paradise Valley Folklife Project. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1978.

Food is crucial to community life, and the American Folklife Center’s archive includes a wealth of information on food. Folklorists often refer to food traditions as “foodways,” “cuisine,” or “cookery,” and it can be helpful to remember these terms when searching for food-related items in the archive and online collections.  Because food is ubiquitous, it is often a way to learn more about related activities such as gathering, raising, and hunting food, as well as beliefs about food and health.

Foodways documentation may be found among materials with another focus, such as dialect research or oral history. Linguists often include questions about cooking, food preparation, and farming in order to gather examples of natural speech. The American Dialect Society Collection, acquired in 1984, (see the finding aid), includes a recipe for watermelon pickle and discussions of farming and preserving food.  The Center for Applied Linguistics Collection, available online, includes several detailed discussions of farming, hunting, preserving food, and cooking. The Veterans History Project Collections include interviews and correspondence concerning what the members of the military ate while overseas and what they especially liked in packages from home.  Other oral history collections, such as the StoryCorps collection, also contain significant discussions about food.

The American Folklife Center’s own documentation projects are rich sources of information about food. The fieldworkers attended food-related events and asked questions about foodways, often learning about the cultural events surrounding foods, food preparation, and the meanings of particular foods. The collections usually include recordings, photographs, and field notes, and so provide especially complete documentation of traditions, sometimes including recipes.

A boy holds a small mushroom in his hand.
Joe Hill, age 11, picking morel mushrooms. Morels are called “molly moochers” in West Virginia.  Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1997. Tending the Commons / Coal River Folklife Project.

The Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection (1978-1982), part of which is online as “Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-82,” documents pit barbecues, grill barbecues, chuck wagons, and family cooking and meals.  The collection items in the current online presentation are a selection of the items most relevant to the work of ranching. The food-related items in this selection are mainly photographs. The full collection will be put online in the near future.

The Coal River Folklife Project, online as “Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia,” looked at the ways that people in the Coal River valley, West Virginia, made use of their unique ecosystem. This included gathering and preserving wild foods, food preparation, hunting, and home gardens. Fieldworkers attended events such as ramp (wild onion) suppers, and went to the homes of people doing their summer and fall canning to document their techniques.

Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting (1994), also online, focuses on occupations in Paterson, New Jersey, including ethnic-owned businesses. Two food businesses were documented in depth: The Hot Grill, a Greek-American-owned fast food restaurant where the “hot Texas wiener,” a signature food of the city, can be found; and Sweet Potato Pie, Inc., an African American owned business that makes sweet potato pies for retail sale.

A young African American spoons batter into a small pie shell.
As African Americans migrated from the south to northern cities, they brought their southern foodways with them, including some dishes we now think of as “American.” A worker spoons sweet potato pie batter into a pie shell at the Sweet Potato Pie, Inc., 140 Auburn Street, Paterson, New Jersey. Photo by Martha Cooper, 1994. Forms part of the Working in Patterson Project Collection.

The American Folklife Center’s field collections that are not yet online are being digitized and prepared for presentation, but as these are complex multimedia collections, the process takes some time. The next to be made available will be the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project (1977) , expected to be released in the late spring or early summer of 2016. This project focused on music, dance, arts, and crafts of many ethnic groups in Chicago. The food documentation was primarily of food production for special holidays (such as Norwegian, Icelandic, Polish, and Swedish Christmas baking)  or rituals. The preparation of sitari (or koliva) — a Greek food prepared for a memorial to the dead — is documented in photographs and interviews. The Japanese Tea Ceremony is also documented in detail, in interviews and photographs that included a younger generation of girls being taught to prepare tea. There is also some documentation of family cooking and baking, particularly ethnic traditions such as Italian bread and pizza.  (See the finding aid.)

Following are notes on foodways in some of the other American Folklife Center field surveys that are being prepared for online release. Several collections are planned for release in 2016 and 2017:

The South Central Georgia Folklife Project collection (1977). This field project focused on music and arts and also includes barbecue, fishing, food preservation, baking, and breakfast traditions. (See the finding aid.)

The Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection (1977-1981). This collection includes documentation of church suppers as well as preparing and preserving food. (See the finding aid.)

The Pinelands Folklife Project (1983-1991). This project looked at traditions of many ethnic groups in the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey. Food traditions examined included regional and ethnic foods, commercial and non-commercial fishing, cranberry harvesting, farming, hunting (especially duck and deer), and the collection and use of wild foods such as berries and mushrooms. (See the catalog record.)

A woman stands next to a table with shelves at the back all piled with food and baked goods.
Josephine Martellaro of Pueblo, Colorado, with the St. Joseph’s Day Table she created at her home in 1990. Italian Americans in the West Project Collection. Photo by Myron Wood, 1990.

The Lowell  Folklife Project Collection (1987-1988). The researchers examined diverse ethnic traditions in Lowell, Massachusetts, including foodways and local fishing. (See the finding aid. )

The Italian Americans in the West Project (1989-1991) included documentation of Italian cooking and food traditions, including St. Joseph’s Tables, a home ritual of giving food to the community and the poor as an expression of gratitude to St. Joseph, often as an expression of gratitude for healing a family member who was seriously ill. (See the finding aid.)

The Maine Acadian Cultural Survey Collection (1991). This study focused on the Franco-American community in northern Maine, including signature local foods such as ploys (buckwheat crepes) and poutine (fried potatoes with gravy and cheese).  (See the finding aid.)

Of course, this is only a “taste” of the American Folklife Center’s food-related collections. Researchers interested in other foods or traditions should contact the reference staff via Question Point or [email protected].


“America Eats,” an unpublished manuscript from the WPA Federal Writer’s project, 1930-1941. This project also included photographs of cooking and food-related events. The manuscript is available in the Manuscript reading room. Some of the photographs have been put online.

American Folklife Center. Cramberries: Pinelands Folklife Project. Library of Congress, 1984. This booklet includes information about cranberries and recipes from the field project (PDF, 30 pp., 3MB).

Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. American Folklife Center documentation of many traditions in the Blue Ridge on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, 1978-1981. Includes food traditions, harvest, baking, canning, drying apples. [added 2019]

Hall, Stephanie, “’A Man Who Could Outrun the Shot’ and Other Hunting Stories,” in Folklife Today, November 17, 2014.

Hall, Stephanie, “Putting Foods By for Winter,” in Folklife Today, November 5, 2013.

Hall, Stephanie, “Spring Tonics,” in Folklife Today,” March 10, 2016.

Harris, Megan, “Buttered Fresh Frozen Lima Beans: Commemorative Holiday Menus in the Veterans History Project,” in Folklife Today,  December 4, 2014.

Harris, Megan, “Ode to a (Canned) Peach,”  in Folklife Today, August 3, 2014.

Serving up Food Collections, a special issue of Library of Congress Magazine,  November-December 2015 (PDF, 17 pp., 3MB).

Taylor, David A. and John Alexander Williams, eds. Old Ties, New Attachments: Italian American Folklife in the West.  Library of Congress, 1992. A book produced from the Italian Americans in the West Project Collection. Available online from Hathi Trust at the link.

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