What America Ate Archive Invites Public Engagement around Eating Habits During the Great Depression

What America Ate Archive Invites Public Engagement around Eating Habits During the Great Depression

  • Helen Veit, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Department of History
  • College of Social Science
  • Peter I. Berg, Ph.D.
  • Librarian and Head of Special Collections
  • Associate Director, Special Collections and Preservation
  • MSU Libraries
  • Dean Rehberger, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Department of History
  • Interim Chair, Department of Sociology
  • Director, MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities
  • College of Social Science
Preserving America's Culinary History from the Great Depression

Providing opportunities for the public to engage intellectually, both receiving from and contributing to a collective community of knowledge, is an important part of MSU's outreach focus. Helen Veit, associate professor in the Department of History, Peter Berg, head of the MSU Libraries Special Collections, and Dean Rehberger, director of MATRIX, are working on a project that offers this kind of opportunity.

The project, called What America Ate, is a digital archive of thousands of culinary sources from the 1930s about eating habits during the Depression. Created to be a warm, user-friendly website, What America Ate invites the public to take part in the archival process while learning about an important time in America's history.

"This project was really designed from the ground up to be about public engagement," said Veit. "I do think it will be useful to scholars…but we've really tried to make this a project that will appeal outside of the academy, and that, I hope, comes across at almost every level of the project."

The centerpiece of the archive (and its namesake) is the America Eats collection. America Eats was a job creation program in the 1930s under Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, in which about 200 writers and photographers were sent around the country to document regional American eating.

"There was a fear that a lot of regional specialties and 'grandmother's way of cooking' were disappearing," Veit explained. "So a real impetus for the original 1930s program was to document and preserve these older, regional American food specialties."

The archive also contains a collection of about 200 rare community cookbooks, gathered from both the MSU and University of Michigan libraries. Peter Berg oversees the MSU Libraries Special Collections, which includes the cookery collection, one of his personal favorites.

"We love our cookbook collection," said Berg. "We want people to know about it, to appreciate it, and more importantly, to use it, and that comes down into outreach. So what's the best way to do that? The best way is to offer it up for digitization and then the world can see what we have at Michigan State."

"These are fabulous sources because they show real recipes from actual people," said Veit. "Unlike a regular cookbook by a single author, produced by a big publishing house, these were grassroots, community-based, local ventures, and you can get a real sense of how people in particular communities were eating."

Berg also provided the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection of food marketing and packaging materials, which makes up a third collection of the archive.


"It is all about advertising. So it's Nabisco, it's Jell-O, and it's companies that no longer exist, but that were, during the era of the 1930s, beginning to make food corporate," said Berg.

Together, the three collections give users a more complete perspective on food in the 1930s.

"If you only looked at the America Eats collection," said Veit, "you'd get the impression that most Americans were rural, very poor, and ate in this sort of quaint, old-fashioned way that's very different from how we eat today. And if you only looked at the advertising collection, you might get the sense that all Americans were middle class, modern, lived in the suburbs, and had beautiful kitchens and nice clothes and the leisure to cook beautiful cakes. So combining them gives viewers a really nuanced picture of food. It also gets across the fundamental humanities idea that looking at any single source is never going to give you the whole picture of the past."

According to Veit, much of what makes the archive so publicly welcoming is the technical support and creativity of the experts at MATRIX. Dean Rehberger provides leadership in creating the infrastructure for project support, but specifically credits team members Alicia Sheill (project manager), Austin Truchan (website designer), Seila Gonzalez Estrecha (programmer), Catherine Foley (archival best practices), and Ethan Watrall (user experience design consultant) for their breadth of expertise in developing this kind of resource.

"We are lucky at Matrix to have an excellent team," said Rehberger. "Traditionally the humanities projects are done by individuals," said Rehberger. "However, digital humanities projects require the expertise of many."

Inviting Collaboration

A unique feature of the archive is a section called Help Make Food History, where the general public is invited to take part in the archiving process. "Recipes are notoriously difficult to digitize for optical character recognition," said Veit. "But the recipe really has to be accurate; that's the whole point. So we are inviting people to help transcribe and annotate recipes."

Using "badges" created by the team at MATRIX to reward users for their contributions, the archive is able to engage users in a playful way. "I think it will help with user engagement, make people feel invested in the site," said Veit, "and also actually be helpful to us and will make the site more complete and more usable to others."

Not surprisingly, Veit's research has allowed her to correspond with a number of librarians and archivists, from both academic and non-academic institutions, including the University of Michigan, Montana State University, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and the state archives of Kentucky, New York, and North Dakota.

Pamela Cooley, now-retired archives and records management specialist at the New York State Archives, has a passion for culinary history research and jumped at the opportunity to work with Veit on the project. "I was basically responsible for statewide outreach to historical repositories for grants and technical services," said Cooley. "So when I found out about this project, I was so excited!"

Cooley provided management in setting up systems, working with visual resources staff to get the work digitized, and facilitating communication with the team at MSU.

"But the best part for me was writing up all the metadata, which necessitated getting into the records and reading them and coming up with descriptions," she said. "It was the perfect job for me because I really love researching culinary history and I was doing what I loved at work and it was wonderful."

As a historic cook who does a lot of open hearth and wood stove cooking, she often conducts historic culinary demonstrations and workshops and has found the What America Ate archive to be a great resource for local recipes and images. "There are a lot of applications for the archive, and it's just really exciting to me to be able to use it in that way," she said.

Veit hopes that the site will help users gain a more accurate understanding of food issues.

"A lot of people tend to romanticize food in the past…that it was simpler, it was local, it was traditional, it was homemade," said Veit. "And some of that is true, but a lot of it is also not true, especially in the 1930s. I think people will see that a lot of the same anxieties that people have today, people were expressing then, too."

Future Plans

The archive will officially launch in spring 2017. Until then, Veit and the team will continue working behind the scenes digitizing and making refinements. After the official launch, Veit is considering the possibility of future grants to expand the site with more collections or even with multimedia ways to engage. "At the very minimum, we hope to think of it as always a work in progress," she said. "There are lots of ways you could imagine—if you're just dreaming—that the site could go once it's launched."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Helen Veit, MSU College of Social Science

Like this E-Newsletter? Subscribe