James Beard Award-winning food writer Rachel Wharton graduated from NC State’s Department of English with a bachelor’s degree in 1994. Her book American Food: A Not-So-Serious History features a whimsical illustrated history of 26 iconic American foods, from ambrosia (which appears to be from North Carolina) to zucchini bread. We caught up with Wharton to learn more about her in-depth food research and favorite memories from NC State.
What motivated you to write American Food: A Not-So-Serious History?
Well the short story is a friend-of-a-friend, who is an illustrator, was looking for a partner to collaborate on a kind of not-so-normal cookbook. I didn’t want to do a cookbook, but I did want to tell some not-so-normal stories about what we eat here in the U.S. and why. So I suggested we pick a random framework and then research stories within that framework. We picked A to Z and came up with one American food to research for each letter.
I have been a full-time food writer for about 15 years, and I also have a master’s degree in food studies from NYU. I knew no matter which foods we picked, that if we did enough of them, we would be able to talk about some delicious, funny things but also tell all the real, deeper stories of American food: immigration and colonialization; changes in our agricultural and food processsing systems over the past 400 years (see Monterey Jack and blueberries); the impacts of bigger companies on trends we thought were happening organically (see ketchup or pineapple upside down cake); climate change (clams); racism (hot wings); slavery (red-eye gravy and shrimp and grits); the native cultures that are here now and were here before this was the United States (Hatch chiles and queso) and so on and so forth.
Oh yeah, we did also include recipes! Because how can you read about pineapple upside down cake or New Mexican red chile enchiladas and not want to make them?
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I read as many old cookbooks, food books, academic works and newspaper articles as I could find on my subjects for about three years. I watched documentaries and interviewed experts and those whose families had been making these things for centuries. I kept my ears open when anybody mentioned these foods. I went to local libraries. I did all these things at the source as often as I could. I had 26 chapters, one American-ish food for each letter of the alphabet. I went to Portland, Oregon, for the history of zucchini bread; New Mexico for the history of Hatch and other chiles; Texas for queso; California for Orange Julius, Monterey Jack, fortune cookies and Green Goddess dressing; Massachusetts for fried soft shell clams; New Jersey for blueberries; Buffalo, New York for hot wings; Philadelphia and Delaware for big Italian sandwiches … and so on!
What was your favorite class at NC State?
Numero uno was Rod Cockshutt’s senior writing class; I also loved linguistics and copyediting. Also runner ups: social deviance, my bowling P.E. class at the old lanes where the Target is now, and my canoeing class which has come in handy plenty of times (I’ll never forget the J-stroke, thank you NC State). In retrospect, I had so many food and agriculture classes at my fingertips that I regret not taking. Maybe one day I will.
How did your NC State degree impact your career?
I do exactly what I was trained to do there. I also got my first newspaper job at the Technician, as a features writer. And I got my first real journalism job on campus at Coastwatch, the magazine produced by Sea Grant. I was a paid intern-ish type there for about a year right after I graduated, and my office was the probably not legally inhabitable basement of the 1911 Building under the steps.
What’s your favorite food?
Impossible to answer. My boyfriend is a photojournalist, and your answer to what is the best camera is supposed to be whichever one you have; with food, for me, it’s fairly similar. I have always loved pimento cheese and fried Louisiana oysters (I grew up in Raleigh, but my folks are from there), tomato-mayo sandwiches and crawfish, and shrimp etouffee and toasted bagels, which meant Lender’s back in ye ancient days of pre-Bruegger’s 1990s Raleigh. Living in NYC for 20 years now, I love all kinds of things.
When do you cook?
I am writing this in April 2020, during the height of the pandemic, so the answer is about every six hours. But I work from home anyway, so usually it’s still almost twice a day — if cooking counts as turning on a burner to do something or getting out a knife.
In one word, what do you need to overcome writer’s block?
Deadlines. (Does anyone give any other answer?)
When do you read?
Sunday afternoon, for myself. For work, I am kinda reading all the time, all day long.
What’s next for you? Another cookbook, something else?
Yes! Cookbooks (which I work on in collaboration with cooks and chefs) and lots of something elses. Articles, food books that aren’t cookbooks, more illustrated food history books, and hopefully a two-color zine that I will make from scratch with my boyfriend and frequent collaborator (photojournalist John Taggart) using a cool printer called a Risograph. I think the first subject will be Atlantic City, and it will be loosely food-related, because what isn’t?