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, regional, and traditional - from the lost WPA files
US: May 2009
The eponymous land described in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land is not as idyllic a place as the book’s romantic title might suggest. While the recipes and essays collected within do depict a time “when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional,” they also reveal an America many modern diners might find quite a bit less palatable than the present one.
The Food of a Younger Land has its origins in the Great Depression, when the Works Progress Administration was creating projects to keep out-of-work American authors busy. As Kurlansky explains, the WPA hoped to build on the success of its series of regional guidebooks by creating a similar collection of regional writing about food.
“America Eats” aimed to be, in Kurlansky’s words, “a book about the varied food and eating traditions throughout America, an examination of what and how Americans ate”. This vast project put hundreds of writers to work penning poems, describing barbecues, interviewing American Indians and taking down recipes for everything from soup to nuts, quite literally. Unfortunately, the massive effort put forth by WPA writers and editors was cut short by the outbreak of World War II, leaving “America Eats” unpublished.
The die-hard Kurlansky fan may be disappointed by how little of him The Food of a Younger Land has to offer. He has stepped aside from his subject and let these authors, in all their motley variety, speak largely for themselves. His sense of wonder at this rather untapped archive is clear in his introduction, however, which may leave some readers wishing he had mounted the greater effort of publishing this material as it was intended, in a series of separate regional volumes, rather than trying to condense “the broad and rich mountain of copy” into less than 400 pages.
But the recipes Kurlansky has selected are, in a word, amazing. Beaver tail; roasted possum; eel eggs; lamb and pig “fries”, or testicles; and squirrel mulligan, a sort of Irish stew, Arkansas-style—all strain the modern American diner’s imagination, sometimes to uncomfortable extremes. Desserts get their due as well, including such delicacies as vinegar pie, and dishes such as plum pudding that many will find familiar at least in name, if not in flavor. To drink, there is the horror that was “Milkoline,” or milk and gasoline consumed in lieu of alcohol, courtesy of Portland, Ore.‘s Skid Row; and cherry bounce, which black servants created by adding fresh cherries to the leftover bottles of whiskey filched from their master’s houses.
Kurlansky makes the point in his introduction that much of the book’s contents will likely seem alien, even to those residents of the regions he details. However, with America’s renewed interest in local food, kitchen gardens and preserving, it’s not unthinkable that some of the recipes collected decades ago may enjoy something of a renaissance today. Where 10 or 15 years ago, Americans might have seen pickled peaches as little more than a curiosity, today’s devotees of farmers’ markets and fruit foraging may agree with their forebears that this is a great way to capture the fleeting flavors of the season.
While Kurlansky’s explanation of the intricacies and foibles of the “America Eats” project form a useful backdrop to the recipes and stories of The Food of a Younger Land, at times these asides distract from the book’s core message. The premise—that the “America Eats” project describes a different America than the one we know today—begs for more explication of these differences. It is one thing to include a laundry list of pickled fruit and vegetable dishes from Vermont, but these oddities could be imbued with more meaning if Kurlansky pointed out their regional and historical significance.
This is not always the case; Kurlansky does explain, for example, that the overfishing of the Pacific Northwest has turned salmon from a staple into a luxury good. The WPA writers, in many cases, provide their own context. But it is a shame we do not get more of the patented Kurlansky treatment that has elucidated millions of readers about salt, cod, and the Basques.
It is also perhaps a stretch to refer to the “America Eats” files as “lost,” with the subsequent implication that it was Kurlansky alone who “found” them. In fact, Nelson Algren’s contribution to the project—the section on the Midwest—was published under the “America Eats” title in 1992. Put out by the University of Iowa Press as part of its Iowa Szathmáry Culinary Arts Series, it drew critical praise from the New York Times and other critics. While the book did not net the same volume of press as Kurlansky’s recent effort, it is nevertheless a significant predecessor that gets short shrift here. Foodies have been stumbling across this out-of-print gem in used bookstores ever since; witness this blogger’s discovery of the tome in 2008. Yet in the version of history given in Kurlansky’s introduction to The Food of a Younger Land, the entirety of the “America Eats” project had been sitting on a shelf of the Library of Congress, gathering dust, until he came along and rescued it from obscurity.
This is not to suggest that a tremendous amount of research, editing, and passion did not go into The Food of a Younger Land. Kurlansky has, without a doubt, done a great service by bringing this slice of American history into the light. Anyone with an interest in American folklore, food history, or oddities in general will find something to enjoy in The Food of a Younger Land.