BOOKLIGHT: "The Food of a Younger Land"Mark Kurlansky’s “The Food of a Younger Land” is, as the subtitle describes it, “a portrait of American food – before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional – from the lost WPA files.” It’s also a real treasure.
By: Ellen Baker, Living North Magazine
Mark Kurlansky’s “The Food of a Younger Land” is, as the subtitle describes it, “a portrait of American food – before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional – from the lost WPA files.” It’s also a real treasure.
As Kurlansky explains in the book’s introduction, the Federal Writers’ Project, which had been formed in 1935 under the auspices of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, or WPA, had, in its first years, completed a series of highly successful guidebooks to American states and cities, and the Project’s administrators, looking for a new way of examining America, came up with the idea of focusing on food. “America Eats” was to be put together much like the guidebooks had been, with entries from every region of the country describing the local food and “group mores … in connection with the meal.” Writers across the country were enlisted in the project; the deadline for all copy was Thanksgiving week of 1941. With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and the United States’ entry into World War II, however, the Federal Writers’ Project officially became the Writers’ Unit of the War Services, and all the manuscripts submitted to “America Eats” went into a box, which ended up at the Library of Congress – where Kurlansky discovered it decades later.
Kurlansky sorted through the huge stack of typed manuscripts to compile what he calls “not always the best but the most interesting pieces,” which, due to the lack of editing done in the 1940s, form not the organized, well-thought-out guidebook which was originally envisioned, but “a chaotic and energetic assortment of reports … in hundreds of different voices.”
These hundreds of unique, regional voices make for fun and interesting reading. One writer describes the New York Literary Tea: “Tea is a rarity at these gatherings. The conventional beverages are dry martini and Manhattan cocktails… The uninitiated gravitate toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink.” Several essays explain the New England debate over which variety of clam chowder is best. (Evidently, Manhattan clam chowder originated in Rhode Island, but the people of Massachusetts had such disdain for the idea of tomatoes in clam chowder – and for Manhattan – that they provided the name.)
Pieces on Southern food were written by, among others, the most well-known writers to take part in the project, Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. Some of the regional favorites described include seafood gumbo, beaten biscuits, barbecue sauce, squirrel mulligan, hush puppies, burgoo, Georgia possum and taters, rattlesnake snacks (from Florida), and Mississippi hoecakes. There are several short pieces on the “controversial” mint julep. Some essays also describe cultural events that surround food, such as the Chitterling Strut, where chitterlings were served along with cider, pickles, and corn pone in African-American homes “for the purpose of making money to be used for anything from paying church to buying a winter coat… By nine o’clock, the feed is over and the shoo round strut begins.”
One of my favorite essays in the “Middle West” section of the book beautifully describes the lutefisk church supper. “From noon to midnight the heavy odor of codfish hangs on the air… The hungry guest must wait… until there is space at a table in the crowded church basement… And so he sits, sometimes for as long as two hours, in one of the pews of the steamy, fish-stuffy church. And yet he doesn’t mind waiting very much; it is much like waiting to see the President or the Duke of Windsor… If a newcomer is present… they will tell him, with an air of complacent knowledge, ‘You won’t like it. Nobody likes lutefisk at first. You have to learn to like it. Better take meat balls.’”
Taken as a whole, “The Food of a Younger Land” is fascinating not only for the window it provides into a bygone era, but also for the insights it provides into present-day regional traditions. You probably won’t want to read this book all in one sitting, but it’s a wonderful one to savor in small portions.
Ellen Baker is the author of “Keeping the House: A Novel,” now available in paperback. She lives in northeastern Minnesota, where she is working on her second novel. Visit her Web site at www.ellenbakernovels.com.