Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Food of a Younger Land - Mark Kurlansky






Bless Mark Kurlansky's food-nerdy heart!  One day, he was rummaging around in the Library of Congress, and he found a WPA writing project that had been started in the last days of the Depression.  The idea of this project, 'America Eats' was meant to include reportage from all over the country that chronicled American's daily -- and special days -- fare.

 Notes, articles, recipes and other miscellanea were gathered for a few years, then the project was abandoned at the beginning of WWII in a half-finished state.  There it lay for 70 years until Mark Kurlanksy came along.  Following the outline, he sorted through the materials and put together this book.  It's an uneven result.  Some regions are woefully under-represented and others have too much repetitive material.  Still, it's great that this document finally saw the light of day.  Here are my reading notes:

NYC luncheonette jargon from the 1930s.  So much fun...and the automats!  Snappy essay, beautiful prose.  Makes me want to go back in time and eat at one.

New England:  Lots and LOTS of discussion about the proper way to make clam chowder.  I have my own opinion, but reading the various recipes insisting that their way is the only right way makes for a good time.

Eudora Welty weighed in from her home state of Mississippi with recipes for barbecue, catfish, gumbo and mint juleps.  This is the only example of her food writing on record, and it's excellent.

Arkansas' food section was pretty much like I thought it would be: Squirrel stew and poke salad.

Frowns all around!!!  I'm in the southern section now.  The African-Americans are well-represented, but the stupid 1930s interviewer had to put their recipes and remarks into dialect writing.  Also, there are way too many racist remarks about behavior, and the gauzily fond reminiscences of slaves and plantations are sickening.  I am very ugh and can't wait to get into another part of the country!

The Middle West.  NO MISSOURI?!  What. The. Hell.  Nebraska seems over-represented.  Best article was the one about preparing food for the threshers (from Iowa?).

The far west and the southwest regions have been the most entertaining.  An Oregonian writer's rant about mashed potatoes reads like the best of Dorothy Parker's writing.  The grunion run in California was also amusing.  I wonder if they still do it.

Except for that southern section (where the reader is also mint julep-ed to death), The Food of a Younger Land was a fun and fascinating read.  Kudos to Mark Kurlanksy for taking on the task.  As he points out in the introduction, it's a good thing the original project was able to capture these regional recipes.  As Kurlanksy points out in the introduction, nowadays, the cuisine lines are less demarcated because of the preponderance of chain restaurants and fast food.  'America Eats' 2014 -- wonder what kind of book would that be?

3 comments:

bibliophiliac said...

I never knew Eudora Welty did food writing for the WPA! She also took some wonderful photographs in her home state of Mississippi for the WPA. This sounds like a treasure trove for researchers.

Vasilly said...

I never heard of this book before though read positive things about the Kurlanksy. I like how you shared your notes with us. :-)

Phaedosia said...

Yup--still doing grunion runs in SoCal: http://www.cabrillomarineaquarium.org/education/programs-individual-family/meet-the-grunion.asp