One of the first things people from western Kansas want you to know is that their state isn't totally flat. I wouldn't have believed them if I hadn't seen the Flint Hills for myself. Speeding west for 120 miles from Kansas City to Manhattan ("the Little Apple", a town of 45,000 and home to Kansas State University), you're treated to spectacularly unadorned terrain—but those really are hills in the background.
I'm making this drive to learn more about a once famous, now forgotten food writer I've come to admire: Clementine Paddleford. Culinary icons often have a geographical touchstone. For Julia Child, it was France, where she had her gastronomic epiphany. For Elizabeth David, it was Egypt, where she discovered the integrity of a life spent pondering the edible. Paddleford, too, ate her way through the world, but she found her culinary inspiration at home, in America. Indeed, Paddleford was arguably the first journalist to call attention to the fact that there is a rich tradition of good eating on these shores—a tradition worth preserving and building on. And it all started in Kansas.
Born in 1900 (or 1898, depending on your source), Clementine Haskin Paddleford was an ordinary Kansas farm girl who grew up to be, for a time at least, the world's most influential food writer. She covered the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, dined with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Nice, crisscrossed the States, traveling some 50,000 miles a year, to sample local delicacies, and wrote about it all—smartly, sassily, and with unerring authority and enthusiasm—for the New York Herald Tribune, among other publications. At the height of her career, Paddleford had an estimated 12 million readers; was named "best known food editor in the United States" by Time in 1953; and was even the subject of a New Yorker cartoon. She was also a single mother, a pilot (she flew her own Piper Cub plane to expedite research trips), and an unabashed cat lover.
I first learned about Paddleford, who died of cancer in 1967, by happy accident. Two years ago while in Boston, my husband popped into a used-book shop, came across a dusty old cookbook called How America Eats (Scribner's, 1960)—basically, a compilation of columns that Paddleford wrote for the Tribune and This Week magazine—and bought it for me. I'd never heard of Paddleford, but as soon as I opened the book, I knew this was someone who definitely should not have been forgotten.
"We all have hometown appetites," Paddleford once said. "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." After explaining in the foreword that her book is based on personal interviews with more than 2,000 of the country's best cooks and that the recipes are "word-of-mouth hand-downs from mother to daughter", she proceeds to introduce us to people like Mrs. Thomas W. Jensen, a Salt Lake City mom who told Paddleford that she fixed apple dumplings so good they put all eight of her daughters-in-law to shame, and Mrs. Carl Stewart, the former food editor of the Des Moines Register, who made vinegary barbecue pork and had been cooking "ever since she could remember". But Paddleford didn't limit her research to traditional American fare. She also documented the way immigrants influenced the American table—concocting dishes "mixed and Americanized", as she put it. So we get to meet Mrs. Norvin H. Vaughan, who every Christmas baked German sweets like schokoladeplštzchen (little chocolate drops), and Mrs. Eliot Fletcher, who hailed from a family of cigar makers who emigrated to Tampa and who served up a killer Spanish boliche (eye roast with olives, lime juice, ham, and garlic).
In Paddleford, who liked to boast that she ate "every dish at the table where I found it", I'd met a writer who spun gold from the simple wisdom of American recipes. I grew up in a Jewish family in the South; we ate things like stuffed cabbage and kasha alongside fried chicken and creamed corn. Ours was a melting-pot table, with food that was tied not to just one tradition but to many—a distinctly American phenomenon, and exactly the phenomenon to which Paddleford devoted her life.
Curious, I began cooking from the book, starting with a cake from the Philadelphia chapter. "Aunt Sabella's Black Chocolate Cake" turned out as promised: easy to prepare, moist, and rich. Paddleford's clipped, efficient prose in the accompanying text was equally rewarding: "Chocolate cake, now that's my meat," she wrote, after discussing her foray into Pennsylvania Dutch country for "chocolate cakes, so famous people drive one hundred miles and more to eat a slice fresh cut".
The book's recipes and stories only made me hungrier to know more about the woman responsible for uncovering and sharing them. Internet research turned up a couple of pages with Paddleford's most famous quotes (my favorite: "Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be"). Then I came across a gem: Kansas State University's website. On it, I learned Paddleford was a graduate of the school, which during her time was called Kansas State Agricultural College, and had bequeathed it her papers, 1,900 cookbooks, and various other effects. "The Clementine Paddleford Papers (1920–1967)" is a collection that includes menus, diaries, photographs, 25 scrapbooks, and more than 100 boxes of clippings, not to mention award plaques, hot plates, a copy of nearly every column she wrote, correspondence with readers and editors—in short, a treasure trove for someone interested in American food history. Some folks make pilgrimages for religion, some for music. I thought I might've found my own guru, and, like a good groupie, I had a burning desire to follow her ghost to Kansas. So from one Manhattan to another I went.