Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pie Town, New Mexico

Main St, Pie Town, NM, 1940

During spurts of boredom or procrastination, I like to browse the Library of Congress photos on Flickr. Especially those commissioned by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and World War I. One day I naturally searched the photostream for "pie" and came up with these Kodachrome photographs from Pie Town, New Mexico.

Apparently, Pie Town was named as such because it was the home of a dried apple pie company established in the 1920s. In 1940, on New Deal money from the Farm Security Association, photographer Russell Lee traveled to this New Mexico homesteading community to document how its residents were coping with the economic struggles of the Great Depression.

Homesteader feeding his daughter at the Pie Town Fair

From the photographs and this Smithsonian article from 2005, Lee indeed found a depressed town, though this is in fact, what he was charged to do. Aside from giving "starving artists" jobs, the FSA and WPA writers and photographers work served as "proof" of America's poor living conditions and served as evidence in the push for more New Deal relief legislation.

I can't profess that it's not the dirt roads, dusty dresses, and weathered faces that lure me in to these photographs. But another reason why I like them is because they show that despite failing crops and empty pocket books, the residents of Pie Town were still living life, a life that could still be joyful at times. And one of the main way Lee shows this, is through food.

At the free barbeque dinner in Pie Town-- my favorite photo from the series

Just look at these women, serving up pies and cakes at the free barbeque dinner...laughing, maybe at a joke or over the awkwardness of being photographed by a stranger. And those aren't just any old flat, sloppy desserts they're slicing...they are clearly dishes that were prepared and presented with thought, love, and style.

And this was one of the perhaps unforeseen benefits of the WPA and FSA documentation efforts. It was maybe the first documentary project that drew attention to how Americans actually live-- how they live, what they eat, and who sits around their tables.

Serving up the barbeque

Food (and of course, pie) can say a lot.

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