Clementine Paddleford: The Badass Lady Pilot Who Revolutionized the Art of Food Writing

Byron Eggenschwiler
Byron Eggenschwiler

In the Long Island Sound, the world’s fastest nuclear submarine was cruising 200 feet beneath the waves. Sirens and horns whined as the crew tested the submarine’s alarms. As usual, the USS Skipjack hummed with activity. Sailors walked purposefully through tight passageways, their buzz cuts skimming the ceilings. That wasn’t the only buzz in the air: Word on the ship was that Clementine Paddleford was touring the galley.  

It was March 26, 1960, and after a year of wrangling, the U.S. Navy had finally given the 61-year-old journalist permission to board the Skipjack. Now she was in the submarine’s capsule kitchen, a cape around her shoulders and a notebook in hand, scoping out the 54-square-foot room where cooks prepared nearly 300 meals a day for the crew. They flurried about, making strawberry shortcake, prime rib, and endless pots of coffee from ingredients compressed to save space. Though she was no stranger to unusual kitchens, the endeavor was nerve-racking. Paddleford would later write that as she boarded the ship loaded with torpedoes, she’d been “clothed in gooseflesh.” 

But she hadn’t worked so hard just to walk away empty-handed—she’d get her story, along with a brownie recipe that could feed 80. Whether Paddleford was inspecting a kitchen at the bottom of the ocean or piloting a plane across the country in search of new delicacies, she was a fearless pioneer, intent on uncovering tales that would resonate with the American public.

Growing up on a farm in Stockdale, Kansas, taught Paddleford to appreciate the difficulties of ushering food from field to plate—if you craved pork, you needed to kill one of the pigs out back—and her mother instilled a strong work ethic, cautioning, “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.”

As Kelly Alexander and Cynthia Harris recount in their comprehensive 2009 biography, Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate, Paddleford was ambitious and nosy, spending her high school years writing for the local newspaper. She would head to the local train depot at 6 a.m. after her chores to stake out stories. One morning, the 15-year-old spotted a local businessman boarding a train with a woman who wasn’t his wife. It could have been the scoop of her young career, but the story never ran. Her father wouldn’t let her file it.

Little else could stop her. She majored in industrial journalism at Kansas State, where she was an editor at both the college newspaper and the local paper she reported for as a teenager. All the while, she earned money freelancing for Kansas newspapers and farm magazines. 

After graduating, Paddleford packed her bags with notepads and pencils and left Manhattan, Kansas, for Manhattan, New York. As Alexander and Harris explain, she worked feverishly, freelancing for The Sun, The New York Telegram, and papers back in Kansas. She made $8 per Sun story, writing puff pieces like “Girl Uses a Fake Limp to Get Seat.” Despite her motivation, she struggled to make ends meet and supplemented her income with babysitting, waiting tables at a seminary, writing press releases for an interior designer, and working at the Gimbels umbrella counter.

Paddleford felt like a failure. “Sometimes I fairly hate New York,” she wrote to her mother. In the spring of 1922, she attended a wedding in Chicago, and within two weeks, she’d made the Windy City her new home. Paddleford promptly landed two jobs—with the Agricultural News Service and the Milk Market News—making a name for herself covering everything from price-fixing scandals to shipments coming in all the way from China.

Within two years, New York had noticed. The editors of Farm & Firesidemagazine invited Paddleford to be the women’s editor, and she returned to the city. She cultivated a chatty, authoritative voice, reaching out to readers directly for stories. They reached back: Response increased 179 percent during her tenure. Unlike other editors, she refused to be chained to her desk, traipsing onto Midwest farms run by women to find out how they lived. On another assignment, she reported from the home of famous flapper Clara Bow.

In 1930, Paddleford joined the Christian Herald, the nation’s largest religious newspaper, and picked up the church kitchen beat. She wrote increasingly about food: how to brew a good cup of coffee, how Dickens served Christmas pudding. At the time, most food writing was dry, short, and scientific. Journalists explained the benefits of nutrients and how to measure ingredients for recipes. Paddleford’s writing was different. She focused on the people and stories behind recipes instead of just the recipes themselves. Though her turns of phrase would verge on overwrought through the years—mushrooms were “pixie umbrellas,” the sun didn’t rise when it could “flame into a new day”—her descriptions were so brilliant that readers could almost taste each dish. She tapped into their emotions, too: “We all have hometown appetites,” she said. “Every other person is a bundle of longing for the simplicities of good taste once enjoyed on the farm or the hometown they left behind.” Her words made people think about food not only as sustenance but as an experience. Then, just as her career was blossoming, her voice became raspy.

Paddleford was a no-nonsense farm girl. She wasn’t going to visit the doctor over a measly sore throat. But as weeks passed, her hoarseness didn’t improve. The pain became so unbearable that she finally caved and visited New York Hospital. The doctor had bad news: The 33-year-old had laryngeal cancer.

Paddleford was devastated. She needed her voice. How could she do her job as a reporter without talking to people? The timing felt particularly cruel. Finally on the cusp of a national career, she was about to lose what made her exceptional. 

Doctors gave her two options. They could stop the cancer by removing her larynx and vocal cords, leaving her unable to speak. Or she could undergo a partial laryngectomy, a new and unpredictable procedure that removed part of her larynx. In this case, she would risk a relapse.

There was only one answer for Paddleford: She needed to speak. Surgeons removed part of her larynx and inserted a permanent tracheotomy tube. For the rest of her life, she’d have to breathe through a hole in her throat—but she could talk. To speak, she had to press a button on the side of her throat to allow air to pass through her mouth.

Though it took her a year to speak above a whisper, within six months of surgery she was back to work, a black velvet ribbon wrapped around her neck to hide the hole. Her low, grating voice didn’t stop her from reporting with her typical vigor. She’d later say it was a blessing in disguise: “People never forget me.”

In March 1936, she took over the New York Herald Tribune’s market column. She woke before dawn and hustled to the markets to file copy about produce prices. It wasn’t her creative dream, but Paddleford saw it as a strategic move—the opportunity to write about food full time.

The decision wasn’t simply borne out of a passion for good eating—it was also business savvy. In the waning years of the Great Depression, Paddleford wanted a steady income from a beat she knew would keep people interested even in hard times. Brainstorming what people needed most, she wound up with shoes and food. And obviously, she liked food better. 
 

That bet paid off. Her singular voice was a perfect fit for a regular column. Reader response nearly tripled in her first year. Soon she was the paper’s food editor, and by 1940, she’d become the food editor of the nationally syndicated Sunday magazine This Week. 

Her work was game changing. Paddleford was the first American writer to approach food with as much respect and research as other journalists did with the established serious topics. She used it as a vehicle to talk about the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the New York World’s Fair. When Winston Churchill visited Missouri in 1946, most reporters parsed his Iron Curtain speech. Paddleford wrote about the buffet menu.

She traveled the country, looking for good food and good stories in the cooking pots at hobo conventions and the pantries at governors’ mansions, in the kitchens of fine restaurants in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the galley of an 85-foot yacht sailing the Gulf of Mexico. She cajoled kitchen secrets out of everyone from actress Joan Crawford to caterers at the Ritz-Carlton. By the late 1940s, she was filing stories from sugar shacks in Vermont, salmon canneries in Alaska, and trailer homes in Florida, traveling more than 50,000 miles a year as a “roving food editor.” It was more than a full-time job: Paddleford worked 12-hour days, starting a column each day at 5 a.m. Surrounded by a personal library of 1,900 cookbooks, she guzzled coffee and, to save time, typed in a personalized shorthand. (A secretary translated it.) When she visited the office, she brought her cats. She didn’t just travel to do her reporting—she flew a Piper Cub plane. Between 1948 and 1960, she logged more than 800,000 miles, enough mileage to span the globe 31 times. In her private life, she kept track of her male friends according to what they ate. She almost never cooked at home. One of her two maids prepared her dinner, which she’d eat at her desk.

She was an educator, exposing the country to new dishes. And she was practical: During World War II, she tested turtle, beaver, bear, and whale as substitutes for rationed beef, and she promoted American attempts at European cheeses. (Her recipes, however, called for Cheez-Its and canned mushroom soup more often than they called for truffles and fresh lobster.) 

The work paid off. Paddleford earned a salary of $25,000—about $250,000 today. More important, she became America’s steward of regional food, the first person to celebrate the nation’s cuisine as uniquely multicultural. “Tell me where your grandmother came from and I can tell you how many kinds of pie you serve for Thanksgiving,” she wrote in 1960.

At Paddleford’s height in the late 1950s, roughly 12 million households read her columns. In 1960, she published How America Eats, a collection of regional recipes and stories. It was enormously successful and went through several print runs. By then, other writers had begun to stake claims in Paddleford’s territory. Food writing was now a legitimate enterprise, and people wanted more.

But when she died in 1967, the genre she created forgot her. Her name was eclipsed by new television food personalities (Julia Child’s The French Chefwent on air in 1963). By 1969, her book was out of print. The work that had consumed her life was carried on by other writers who recalled her name only dimly—and as years passed, not at all.

Still, Paddleford’s work survives in the many magazines, books, and television shows now devoted to food, as well as in the realization that taste, culture, and the diversity of America are all vividly reflected in what we eat. Paddleford didn’t just discover that. She embraced it, weaving stories with a voice that doctors once feared would never speak again. Its influence has been heard, and has helped nourish people, all over the world.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

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Never Got a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine as a Kid? You Can Still Buy One This Holiday Season

LUCKYPENNY VIA YOUTUBE
LUCKYPENNY VIA YOUTUBE

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Even as toys have gotten more complex in recent decades, one low-tech item has held a perennial spot on holiday wishlists. The Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine was a hit when it debuted in 1979, and kids and nostalgic adults can still get their hands on one this December.

People who grew up in the 1980s may remember commercials promoting the “yum-yum fun” plastic appliance. Like the Easy Bake Oven and the Frosty Sno-Man Sno-Cone Machine before it, the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine allowed kids to make edible treats at home. The Peanuts branding made the toy popular with kids, and despite the elbow grease required to crank a couple of ice cubes into shaved ice, it's stuck around.

If you asked for a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine for the holidays as a kid and never received one, you can still make your childhood dreams come true. The retro product is available practically unchanged from how it appeared in the 1980s. The biggest changes are that the hand crank is now easier to turn and there's a clamp for stabilizing the machine while you use it. Get one for yourself or a loved one from Amazon today for $30.

Looking for more nostalgic gift ideas? Here are some items the Millennials in your life will love.