Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Review: 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.

Author: Mark Kurlansky
Format: hardback 388 pages
Subject: food, recipes, social customs
Genre: non-fiction, collation
Source: public library
Challenge:Support Your Local Library

 During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) created the Federal Writer's Program (FWP)  to provide work for unemployed authors.  There were a number of projects that evolved, including a series of guidebooks for the different states.  Late in the 30's, the "America Eats" project began.  There were actually a series of projects in different sections of the country, which were intended to be combined in one huge report.  WWII intervened, and the reports from individual writers were never collated or published.

Enter Mark Kurlansky, researcher extraordinaire.  He has taken the long abandoned manuscripts, culled out the best and put them together in this delightful look at how our parents and grandparents ate.

The book is divided into the original five geographic sections envisioned by the FWP.  Each section features representative essays, stories, recipes, anecdotes, reports of festivals and church suppers, along with photographs and drawings.  I started this book as an audio, which while well done, did not lend itself to savoring all the information, so I borrowed a print edition from the local library.  It is such a fun read, that it is now on my wishlist to purchase so that I can add it to my food collection. It is part history, part social memoir, and part cookbook.  All of it  interesting and enticing.  Some of my favorites include

From the Northeast:
  • the North Whitefield Maine Game Supper, 
  • the almost infinite discussion of the variations of clam chowder,
  • the glorious reminiscences of the New York Automat (complete with 5 page glossary of slang and jargon for short order cooks in New York); 
  • the "Italian Feed" in Vermont;

From the South:
  • recipes for possum, squirrel, rabbit, rattlesnake and chitterlings;
  • a good recipe for crab imperial (an outstanding and scrumptious chesapeake bay dish well remembered from MY youth--it was THE dish for banquets, weddings, and any big celebration--no girl left home in Maryland without knowing how to make it). 
  • The introduction to Mississippi food written by Eudora Welty is one of her earliest works and representative of the kind of work the FWP engendered.

From the Middle West:
  • recipes and stories about food favored by various Indian tribes such as buffalo tongue as a delicacy favored by the Sioux (who incidentally never used salt until they were introduced to it by white men in the early 1900's); 
  • the Lutefisk favored by the Scandanavians who settled in the Great Lakes region; 
  • recipes from the cooks serving the vast lumberjack camps in Michigan---

"At night they came into camp stamping with cold and grim with hunger.  In the cookhouse the long tables were loaded with food; smoking platters of fresh mush, bowls of mashed potatoes, piles of pancakes and pitchers of corn syrup, kettles of rich brown beans, pans of prunes, dried peaches, rice puddings, rows of apple pies." pg. 269.

From the Far west

"The life of these people is not entirely one monotonous round of fried beans, baked beans, boiled beans, and just beans,varied only by an occasional jack rabbit or two...";
  • there were numerous recipes and essays about salmon, smelts, clams,  Montana Beaver Tail, and Washington Wildcat parties.  
  • This fascinating section also included a list of Colorado superstitions (pg. 296) of which my favorite is #12: " You will receive mail from the direction in which your pie is pointing, when it is set down at your place at the table." 
  • The recipe for Depression Cake is almost identical to one I inherited from my gram (via my mom) which is known in our family as "YUM YUM Cake"--I still make it every Christmas. 
  • And the essay by Claire Warner Churchill entitled "An Oregon Protest Against Mashed Potatoes" had me rolling on the floor.

The Southwest section was the shortest--for some reason the WPA lumped only Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Southern California into this section.  Most of the recipes were heavily influenced by the Spanish American presence  so prevalent in that area. 
  • Don Dolan contributed an essay entitled " A  Los Angeles Sandwich called a Taco."  
  • There were also several essays and discussions of the food (and customs) of the Choctaw and Hopi Indian tribes, and
  • A story about Oklahoma prairie oysters (aka the results of 'cattle neutering'.)

The book concludes with lists of cookbooks available during the era, and a current bibliography for more up-to-date resources.  This is a tour de force.  Kurlansky has done a yeoman job of taking a ton of material and getting it down to a manageable and enjoyable volume.  A great read for anyone interested in social history and food.


  1. I have my grandmother's cookbooks which are stuffed with recipes that give you a sugar crisis just reading them. However, she also saved the pamphlets she got at training sessions during WW II on how to cook delicious meals despite rationing. I haven't looked at these in years - must get them out again.

  2. This book sounds really interesting! I'm always interesting in older, homestyle recipes because I feel like food just tasted better then and wasn't all about the junk in today's food. I borrow recipes from my gramma a lot of the time, so it looks like I'll have to check this book out!

  3. Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed this one as I have it on my shelf, but heard it was a bit dry. I think there is another book also about the WPA food program published around the same time, and I hear that one is better. But I'm glad THIS one is good as I have it to read at my leisure!

  4. My husband and I loved this book and we bought 3 copies to give to family.

  5. I wonder if I could still find a "Italian Feed" in Vermont....

    clam chowder is the nectar of the gods...creamy nectar.

  6. I love food history and this sounds so good. Thanks for finding it, reading it, and telling us about it. I just clicked over to the library's website and put my name on the list.


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