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Insights from a forgotten food writer

If you’ve never heard the name Clementine Paddleford and you enjoy reading good writing, then you are in for a treat.

Paddleford was a popular U.S. food writer from the 1920s to the 1960s. She wrote a regular column about food for the New York Herald Tribune and This Week Magazine among others. Her 1960 cookbook “How America Eats” is an impressive cultural and culinary collection of recipes and history from all 50 states. Her goal in writing the book was to showcase the real way people eat in different regions and parts of each state. You can read her cookbook much like you would a regular book, as she shares not only the recipes but the stories of how she found them and the people who gave them to her. Although almost unknown now in the United States (she’s been called the Forgotten Food Writer), a copy of her cookbook on Amazon can run as high as $920.

What made Paddleford’s columns and cookbook so popular was her way with words. One of her best known quotes, the source apparently her own mother, is, “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone should be.” And there are many more.

So, today’s column is dedicated to sharing a few samples of her writing from both her columns and her books. This column does come with a warning. The way Paddleford writes about food will make you hungry.

“How does America eat? She eats in every language…”

“We all have home-town appetites. Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or in the hometown they left behind.”

“Tell me where your grandmother came from and I can tell you how many kinds of pie you serve for Thanksgiving.”

In the chapter dedicated to Kansas in her cookbook “How America Eats,” she wrote, “There is no perfume in the world like the springtime smell of prairie air.”

Her description of a vegetable as common and ordinary as the radish elevates a commonly overlooked little ingredient to the status of greatness. “A tiny radish of passionate scarlet, tipped modestly in white.”

To her, the perfect souffle responded “with a rapturous, half-hushed sigh as it settled softly to melt and vanish in a moment like smoke on a dream.”

In the preface to her cookbook “Easy Ways to Cook with Rum,” she provocatively described it this way: “That obliging spirit-rum-is always willing for adventure. It’s a very Don Juan among the liquors, dispensing its favors with easy graciousness, an inspiration to the guileless little fruit cup; it holds in thrall a modest cutlet. The strawberry omelet is never more ravishing than in rum’s hot embrace.”

And a column on apples began, “Apples flame the land. Tens of millions of fruit to touch with the hand, to snap from the twig gently, tenderly. Scent of apples down orchard lanes. A drowsy, winy scent permeating the country cellar, spreading across the market place. A glowing apple in the hand, cool, hard-skinned. The teeth crack into the brittle flesh, a winy flavor floods the mouth — the soul of the apple blossom distilled.”

Another column dedicated to the joys of chowder and penned in winter began, “The day has the color and the sound of winter. Thoughts turn to chowder, chowder breathes reassurance. It steams consolation.”

Paddleford was never one to mince words or worry about political correctness. She once wrote, “Beer is the Danish national drink, and the national Danish weakness is another beer.”

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.