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
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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.