The Magazine

Food, Glorious Food

A taste of the Federal Writers Project, without additives.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Food of a Younger Land

A Portrait of American Food--Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal

by Mark Kurlansky

Riverhead, 416 pp., $27.95

Imagine a recent meeting at a major publishing house.

"I have a new book idea," says an author.

"Let's hear it," replies his editor.

"It's an anthology," the author explains.

"Oh, no," mumbles the editor.

"I found these dusty old boxes just filled to the brim with selections from a government-run book project from 1941!" exclaims the writer.

"Dear God, no," moans the editor.

"And best of all," the author presses on, "these clips have never before seen the light of day!"

Hardly sounds like blockbuster material. But when you are the best-selling author Mark Kurlansky, the man who gave us Cod and Salt, book contracts are a little easier to come by. And so we have his latest offering, The Food of a Younger Land.

Thank you, Mr. Kurlansky, and kudos to your wise editor, because rescuing this material was a good deed.

While researching another book on food writing at the Library of Congress, Kurlansky uncovered a treasure trove of material for a planned book entitled America Eats. The materials were collected as part of the Federal Writers Project under Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. The FWP was set up to give jobs to writers, journalists, poets, and any other Tom, Dick, or Hemingway who was unemployed during the Depression.

The FWP "was charged," Kurlansky writes, "with conceiving books, assigning them to huge unwieldy teams of out-of-work and want-to-be writers around the country, and editing and publishing them."

America Eats was supposed to be "a book about the varied food and eating traditions throughout America, an examination of what and how Americans ate." And what a cornucopia of food and traditions it was. There are entries on Maine chowder, a Georgia oyster roast; a Washington smelt fry, a California grunion fry, and a behind-the-scenes look at Skipper Ben Wenberg, the man who invented Lobster Newburg.

There are recipes for Long Island rabbit stew known as Hasenpfeffer, Mississippi barbeque sauce, Indiana pork cake, Virginia hot bread, and Rhode Island jonny cakes (including how they got their name). There is even some poetry, like this offering from "Nebraskans Eat Weiners":

We believe that if Napoleon

In retreating from the cold

Could have had Nebraska hot dogs

He would have made it to the fold.

The section on Vermont foods includes a recipe for pickled butternuts that closes with the directive to "cover tightly and keep for a year before using." Imagine such a recipe appearing in a cookbook today! Talk about slow food.

And from the entry on Coca-Cola parties in the Peach State, we get this:

The dining table is decorated like any tea-table with flowers, fruits or mints, except that there are little buckets of ice so that guests may replenish their glasses as the ice melts. Other bottled drinks are usually provided for those who don't like Coca-cola, but these are few in Georgia.

Where possible, Kurlansky has included contributions from well-known writers. In "Mississippi," Eudora Welty writes, "Generosity has touched the art of cooking, and now and then, it is said, a Southern lady will give another Southern lady her favorite recipe and even include all the ingredients down to that magical little touch that makes all the difference." Entries by lesser-known names, like the one signed "Grandma Smith, Route 1, Gulfport, Mississippi," are equally worthwhile, however.

As much as this book is about food, drinks make their presence known as well. The description of a "Fish Fry on the Levee, Mississippi" has this gem: "Cheap whiskey, locally known as 'stoop-down,' brings about twenty five cents for a short half-pint; 'two-block' wine is a little cheaper but just as potent since you can't drink it and walk more than two blocks." From Kenneth Roberts's description of Maine-style Hot Buttered Rum we learn that it was traditional to "place a barrel of hard cider in the barnyard and allow it to freeze; the remaining liquor that is drained off is applejack, a remarkably powerful fluid." But we also get a stern warning: "Of course, there are legal technicalities covering mere possession of such un-taxed beverages."