The Hale Library rises proudly to five stories, one of the tallest buildings on Kansas State's campus. The Paddleford Papers are housed on the top floor in the special-collections department, along with material on other notable Kansans, like Gordon Parks, the Life photographer and director of the original Shaft film, and Alice Nichols, author of Bleeding Kansas. Cindy Harris, a Kentucky native who married a Kansas boy, looks after the Paddleford collection. Harris starts me off with a stack of boxes, which contain, among other things, all the notes, organized by year, for How America Eats. "She was a real Kansas pack rat," Harris offers, sensing my bewilderment. Paddleford was more than a pack rat: this was a woman who saved every menu from a monthlong hospital stay (she was sick with pneumonia) in 1962. She kept drafts of letters she wrote to her readers and slips of paper inscribed only with notes like "please type". It was as if she knew that somebody would one day follow her trail.
Together, Harris and I spend hours poring over the collection. Pictures from Paddleford's college days reveal a tall, solidly built young woman with a prominent nose, a square jaw, and thick black hair with a fringe of bangs. "I really admire her," Harris says, "because she was no-nonsense." I ask her to explain, and she recounts one notorious episode when Paddleford used the word blood in a story to describe the liquid that comes out of a tomato when cut. After a copy editor changed the word to juice, Paddleford chastised him in front of the newsroom. Her original choice was restored.
I have to don special gloves to handle some of the more fragile papers, including a letter Paddleford wrote to her mother in the winter of 1909 about baking pies during a visit to her grandmother. Leafing through several scrapbooks and boxes, I find a flight certificate, notes about a favorite electric pencil sharpener, pictures of Pussy Willow (a pet cat Paddleford toted daily to the Tribune office, where it eventually dropped dead in Paddleford's "in" box). There are a few items relating to her husband, Lloyd Zimmerman, a fellow Kansas State student, from whom she separated within a year, and to her daughter, Clare. But the vast majority of material is tied, in one way or another, to Paddleford's career as a food writer.
It stands to reason that Paddleford's own "hometown appetite" was the source of her calling. She came from a family of farmers who owned a 260-acre spread called Blue Valley Farm, in Stockdale, a town near Manhattan that was flooded out of existence in 1951 to make way for the Tuttle Creek Dam. Living on the farm with her parents, she grew up loving mealtime and often helped in the kitchen. "At our supper table there was family togetherness plus," she wrote in a memoir about her childhood called A Flower for My Mother; "[supper] was a time for laughter.... Arguments were forbidden."
Paddleford revered her mother, Jennie. "I remember my mother as the Rock of Gibraltar, a woman who could meet an emergency with dignified calm but determined action," she confided in one of the book's essays. Paddleford also wrote about the splendid birthday parties Jennie threw. At one such party, the lavish buffet that Jennie had just laid out was ruined when a pitcher of fresh lemonade tipped over; she stoically re-created the meal, even frying up a new batch of chicken, as an incredulous Paddleford looked on. Reading the tale, I imagine that this was the moment a love for the magic of home economics was born.
Paddleford honed her writing skills by contributing to the local page of her town paper, the Daily Chronicle, while in high school. At K-State, she was one of the school's first female newspaper editors. After graduating with a degree in industrial journalism in 1921, she moved to Manhattan to attend New York University's journalism school. Her first big break came in 1924, when she was named women's editor of the now defunct Farm and Fireside magazine, a post she held for five years before beginning a successful freelance career. A bout with throat cancer in 1932 that required Paddleford to learn how to speak through a "voice box" did nothing to sideline her career. She was tapped to be food editor of the Tribune in 1936 and stayed until the paper shut down in 1966. The invitation to pen a weekly food column, titled How America Eats, for This Week came in 1940. (She wrote the column until her death.) From 1941 to 1953 she was also a contributor to Gourmet.
No doubt Paddleford's popularity was at least partly due to her uniqueness; during most of her era there were just two types of newspaper food writing: restaurant reviews by big-city critics and recipe pages by small-town food editors. One of her peers, Cecily Brownstone, the food editor of the Associated Press from 1947 until 1986, remembers Paddleford as "a celebrity". "[She] did a lot to bring American food to the floor," she told me shortly after I returned from Kansas. Indeed, Paddleford's genius lay in tapping into what she knew best: authentic home cooking. And she used her pulpit to spread local cooks' favorite recipes, and the stories behind them, from coast to coast.
Along the way, Paddleford likely coined the phrase "regional American cooking". And, old as her columns are, they ring true today. Of New England, she wrote, "[The] dishes are as devoid of fuss and feathers as a Puritan's hat." Of Manhattan: "...you can eat around the clock, around the calendar...around the world, and sometimes almost out of this world." Of Florida: "...things are grown, caught, and raised like nowhere else. Not only fish—it's a coconut, pineapple, banana country."
Driving back to the Kansas City airport, I consider Paddleford's legacy: American regional food has never been trendier, yet almost no one responsible for it today has heard of the woman who was probably its initial chronicler. After traveling here to Kansas, I can't help feeling it's important to restore Paddleford to our communal food library; her work is crucial to our understanding of our collective national appetite. And, come to think of it, that is worth more than just remembering; it's worth celebrating.