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Food, Glorious Food

A taste of the Federal Writers Project, without additives.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
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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."

The description of a New York literary tea is wonderful, especially for those connected to the business of books: "The place must always be jammed, seemingly no literary tea is successful unless it is crowded enough to make an exchange of intellectual ideas an impossibility. .  .  . 'Heavy' conversation is invariably frowned upon and chichi wit is at a premium."

Jerry Felsheim, the author of the entry, continues: "The uninitiate gravitates toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink." Ah, to live in a world where reviewers are such objects of desire!

Whereas an earlier FWP effort, a series of American state and city guidebooks, was hugely successful (and can still be found today), America Eats was not.

First, as Stetson Kennedy put it, "Washington kept cooking up these sidelines. America Eats was one of those sidelines." There was also the shame of writing on the dole. Kurlansky loves the concept of government "supporting" the arts, and especially writers, by giving them all jobs. And given the country's current economic difficulties and the poor state of newspapers, the author seems almost to wish that a similar sort of effort could be attempted today.

But he has to admit that, in practice, the Federal Writers Project didn't work for the people it was set up to help. Lots of participating writers were dropping out of the program by 1940 because they "didn't like working for the government and felt there was a stigma to writing for a welfare check," Kurlansky confesses. "They left whenever they had another opportunity." (The fact that contributors to FWP projects didn't get their names published with their work also probably didn't sit well with the scribblers.)

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II effectively shut down the project before it was ever published.

The book's only major failing is that Kurlansky, who has earned his merit badge as a researcher for uncovering, sorting, and publishing this collection, can't keep himself from editorializing. He seems to feel that these pieces should serve as a morality tale: Look how great and diverse American food was seven decades ago, he claims; today it's all Taco Bell and McDonald's.

"It is terrifying," he writes, "to see how much we have lost in only 70 years." Later Kurlansky avers that Midwest "cuisine has been ravaged by fast food." And then there is this comment he made in a recent interview: "It's scary when you read through this and see all of these common things that are really scarce now. Abalone, salmon, flying squirrels--not that I want to eat one, but they should be hopping around."

I hate to burst Kurlansky's bubble, but while it may be true that certain traditions, like squirrel stew, have become rare, American food is more impressive and more diverse today than ever before. Why, just recently, Bon Appétit was beating the drum for American fare in its May issue, entitled "The Best of the U.S.A.," which included all sorts of contemporary local dishes from coast to coast.

Beyond disparaging the quality and diversity of food in America today, Kurlansky beats the drum for global warming whenever he can. Worse still, he seems to get it wrong: In his introduction to a section on Vermont sugaring-off, he writes that "since the 1970s, the winter temperature in America's sugar maple zone has risen between two and three degrees on average and the syruping season now begins five weeks earlier than it did at the time of America Eats."

Except that the text that follows says this:

The average four week season is from about the middle of March to mid-April, but it has been known to start as early as February 22, or as late as the first week in April. Depending on the weather sugar-making may extend as long as six weeks, or last only two.

Apparently the length of the season, and when it begins, has been fluctuating a lot longer than the
current panic about the earth's temperature. Kurlansky should have kept his archivist hat on, stepped back, and let the pieces stand, deliciously, on their own.

Abby Wisse Schachter is an editor at the New York Post.