WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.

Travels with the WPA State Guides: North Carolina Food

  By Fern L. Nesson and Sasha Wolfrum, October, 2020

The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

One of the most charming aspects of the WPA State Guides are their sections on culture. Aside from the requisite essays on geography, economy, and history, the authors were free to write about specific topics that interested them. Happily, food was a focus in the North Carolina guide. 

According to the guide, North Carolina foods and cooking haven’t changed much since colonial times. In the first years of colonial settlement, “a traveler, lost in the wilds of North Carolina was hospitably received at a farmhouse [and served] fat roasted turkeys, geese and ducks, boiled fowls, large hams, barbecued pig, etc. — enough for five-and twenty men.”

        North Carolina WPA Guide  (p.101)

Peaches, corn, apples, pies of all sorts, corn breads and puddings, scuppernong grape wine were also popular in the colony. (p. 102)

In the 1930s, North Carolina cooks were still using “old recipes that have been handed down by word of mouth and cookbooks” and their ingredients and cooking techniques were unchanged:

“Fried chicken and country ham, corn, sweet potatoes, okra, corn fritters […] are food experiences not to be missed […] Fried chicken in North Carolina is […] seasoned with salt and pepper, rolled in flour, and sizzled in hot lard […] Biscuits are made with buttermilk, soda and lard. They are lightly kneaded to produce a fine texture, rolled and baked in a hot oven until brown, then split open and buttered while still hot […]

Every North Carolinian thinks that country-fried hams are among the finest foods. They are fried and served with red gravy […]

Cornnbread in some form is served every day in many homes, as pone or corn sticks, muffins or spoon bread, grits or pudding. Dear to the hearts and health of every Southerner are the greens or ‘sallet’—mustard, turnip, poke, collards, watercress or ‘creases’ according to the section from which one comes. A mess of ‘sallet’ boiled with […] fat meat is a common dish [served in its] “pot likker.”

To a Southerner, potatoes always mean sweet potatoes […] baked until the juice oozes out and served with butter [or] candied […] with butter, sugar and water in a deep dish until tender.

The best native grapes are the scuppernongs, which have thick white skin and delightful fragrance and taste […]

Barbecues [are] popular throughout the state—a relic of old time cooking. Whole pigs […] are roasted over live coals, basted with highly seasoned sauce.  In the fall, along the highways are jugs of fresh apple cider for sale.”

Reading this delightful description made me hungry. And so, on my last visit to North Carolina to visit my grandchildren, I set out with my granddaughter Sasha to make a true North Carolina feast. Here was our menu:

1) biscuits with stawberry jam and butter

2) collard greens in pot likker

3) candied sweet potatoes

4) fried chicken with pepper relish

6) bread and butter pickles

7) pickled beets

8) corn pudding

9) apple pie

10) pumpkin pie with whipped cream

11) scuppernong grapes

12) fresh apple cider

And here were the results:

Both Sasha and I recommend that you try some or all of these dishes for yourself. The cooking techniques are simple and recipes are available in any good Southern American cookbook (or The Joy Of Cooking.) You won’t be disappointed. The tastes are both authentically Southern and exquisitely delicious. It become quite clear that, early on, North Carolinians learned to cook what tastes  good and that they have stuck to it admirably ever since.