The Food of a Younger Land

The Food Of A Younger Land
Edited and illustrated by Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books; 397 pages; $27.95

Seasonal, local, traditional. Before a certain period in time, these were the only options. There were no cross-country distribution networks, no fast food chains. And vast countries like the US had true regional cuisine.

Author Mark Kurlansky came across the archives for a book that was never published. Meant to be entitled America Eats, the book was to be an anthology of works produced by the regional offices of the Federal Writers Project. Created in the mid-30s during the depression, the FWP was part of a make-work project to help provide some semblance of an income to people in the arts (imagine that happening today!). The FWP created a variety of regional guidebooks during its run, some are still in use today, and included notable authors such as Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren.

America Eats was abandoned as the FWP wound down after the US joined the second world war. Submissions and files were gathered up – some, sadly, are lost, and nothing was ever done with them until Kurlansky stumbled upon them.

Divided into geographic regions, the articles range from long essays to recipes or even short paragraphs on various topics. No work had been done to compile or edit the pieces, so Kurlansky chose the ones he felt best represented the region, and that were the most coherent (not all of the contributors were necessarily good writers).

In the northeast, there are many pieces about seafood; the proper way to do a clambake, which state makes the best clam chowder. Vermont maple syrup production is also an important topic in this chapter. There’s a great piece listing New York soda shop and luncheonette slang and jargon (“burn the British” = toasted English muffins), only small snippets of which remain with us today.

The south is typified by the “best mint julep” argument, best BBQ debate and an account of a chitlin party. Since it was the 1930s, well before the civil rights movement, the standard pattern for any dialogue spoken by African-Americans seems to have been a direct translation in the regional patois.

Chil, you knows I’s gonna have hoe cake. I wouldn’t give dese w’ite folks no seafood widout a hoe cake.

This is, without a doubt, utterly disconcerting, and Kurlansky does warn his readers about this beforehand, along with warnings of the use of non-PC terminology and references that would be wholly inappropriate and out of place today.

The mid-west continues the south’s theme of many kinds of bread made with corn, and we see references to plenty of meat, especially beef. Of particular interest is the piece on lutefisk out of Wisconsin – a Norwegian dish made with cod and lye, popular at church suppers.

What we now refer to as the Pacific Northwest is referred to as the far west, and includes northern California. Geoduck, fried beaver tail from Montana (not the Canadian pastry) and smelts all get included, along with a list of kitchen superstitions from Colorado that mentions things like making vinegar only during a full moon. We can also see the beginning of the mess that is the US school lunch program with a piece on school lunches in Washington State (remember, these pieces were written during the depression).

Finally, the south west includes the grunion run along the southern Californian coast, along with traditional dishes of the Choctaws, Hopis, “Spanish-Americans” and Mexicans, including that hot new California treat, the taco. A very genteel piece on Oklahoma prairie oysters – that never specifically states what a prairie oyster actually is – rounds out the section and the book.

We talk a lot, in the SOLE food movement, of preserving traditional foodways, of getting back to what our great-grandparents ate. Food of a Younger Land definitely shows us the differences that have come about in the past 70+ years. That New York soda fountain is long gone. Possum and taters probably still gets eaten somewhere in the south, but it’s unlikely to be a regular dinner item adored by the whole family. Chitlins, oddly, have come back into favour with the nose-to-tail crowd, but they’re not the delicacy they once were. And I’m still trying to sort out the difference between corn pone, hush puppies and hoe cakes, along with the dozens of other kinds of corn-based bread.

Most people won’t care much about cooking some of the recipes included here. There won’t be a big run on burgoo, or tortillas made without a press. But knowing where you came from is never a bad thing, and Food of a Younger Land is definitely a snapshot in time that captures the regional eats of a simpler place and time.