Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: The Food of a Younger Land

The Food of a Younger Land
Mark Kurlansky

(Find it in our widget at right under food nonfiction!)

Over the past couple months I’ve been slowly working my way through the excellent The Food of a Younger Land, a collection of WPA pieces edited into a volume by Mark Kurlansky (author of Cod and Salt: A World History), and now I’ve finally finished it. For anyone curious about what American food was like before the advent of fast food, frozen food, or 20th century cultural homogenization, this book is a fascinating peek into the past.

The book consists of excerpts written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the depression-era Works Progress Administration. The Writers’ Project employed everyone from serious novelists to people who had never published a word before, and it had offices in regions across the US. Much like the WPA project which aimed to document regional folk music of the time, the Writers’ Project conceived of a book entitled “America Eats” which would comprehensively treat what Americans ate, the folkways and customs associated with food, and the ingredients and wisdom particular to local food cultures. It was not only a work program meant to keep writers employed – like the other WPA projects, it reflected an interest in creating an American national identity, and it also stemmed from a fear that the local food cultures being documented were already too quickly fading into the past.

Unfortunately, “America Eats” was never actually completed. The WPA published many other valuable works, but the project was dissolved before the book about food could be put together. However, the WPA archives contain tons of material intended for this project, with submissions from around the entire US, and Kurlansky has excerpted what he considers the most interesting material to create this volume.

The book really reads like you’re personally leafing through a box of WPA files. The pieces are left raw, and are roughly organized into five regions: the northeast, the south, the “middle west,” the far west, and the southwest. Most states are represented, though not all, and some are more heavily represented than others – it all depends on how functional the various local projects were, and how much of interest they produced. Pieces might be brief descriptions of a local barbecue, just a single recipe, an essay about the typical cuisine of a particular area, or even a short story. Authors were told to concentrate on what made each locality’s cuisine unique, what foods they were most proud of, and what food “controversies” raged among the people (think: Manhattan vs. New England clam chowder).

The book is certainly a fascinating representation of how different American regional cuisines were from each other early in the past century. It was fascinating to me to see how much more of the Midwestern food I recognized as “traditionally American” than the food of other regions – even the Northeast, where I currently live. That’s probably attributable both to the fact that I grew up in the Midwest, as well as to the fact that many Midwestern foods were incorporated into the emerging “national” culture and cuisine of the 20th century, to the extent such a thing exists.

It was also a very different country at the time of America Eats – pieces reflect an inhospitable Maine where the people were so poor they might make “chowder” out of only potatoes, a highly segregated Jim Crow south, and a west where cowboys still lived for weeks alone out on the plains. Many pieces also document the foods of Native American nations, at least as understood by the America Eats authors. It’s notable that many of these pieces purport to record the American Indians’ “traditional” dishes, but by this time these peoples had already been pushed off of the lands where they traditionally lived, and their cuisines had surely changed as a result – thus the essay about Choctaw dishes in Oklahoma, when the Choctaw people were actually originally from the Gulf region.

There is a lot one could say about this book, but one thing that struck me was how many of the pieces were about huge public gatherings – barbecues, pay-admission picnics, annual sponsored holiday meals – where a community prepared its traditional foods. It’s hard to think of corresponding festivals like that today. In part that may reflect the fact that America is a less homogenous place than it used to be, but in part it also seems to reflect the loss of community that came along with the interstate highways and other modern transit, the increasing geographic mobility of the population, the influence of a national media and national food cultures, and other aspects of modernization.

Whether to indulge in a little nostalgia or to gain some insight into how people used to eat seasonally in your corner of the US (with hopes that we can begin doing so again today?) it’s worth picking up this fascinating book.

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