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The Pre-Fast Food Era: The Food of a Younger Land

Mark Kurlansky, The Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead, 2009)

 Mark Kurlansky’s new book, The Food of a Younger Land might have a better back story than any book that has come out in the last several years. Kurlansky, a voluminous writer whose output includes two exhaustive food treatises, Salt and Cod, was putting together an anthology of food writing when he made a fortuitous discovery: the Federal Writer’s Project had been working on the exact same thing when it was shut down in 1941.

The FWP was a part of the Works Progress Administration, itself a part of FDR’s New Deal attempts to keep Americans working. At its peak, the FWP employed, according to Kurlansky, around 4,500 writers. What this meant was that major American cultural projects that required hundreds of different writers—such as an examination of what people around the country ate—were, for a brief time, viable. And while the project itself, which was nearing completion in late 1941, was shelved after the Pearl Harbor attacks, the resulting book that Kurlansky has assembled from its files is fascinating.

In 1941, the system of highways didn’t exist, McDonald’s was a single fledgling restaurant in San Bernadino, and refrigerators were still a luxury item. America was less a homogenous conglomeration than a thousand different cultural pockets, where food was mostly local and seasonal, and many people still grew, gathered, or caught a good portion of what they ate. The essays, mostly by anonymous writers, but some by a few authors who were famous or soon-to-be famous, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty, cover the variance and splendor of pre-commodified foods from the deep south, to “fast-paced” New York, to the rural West, and Los Angeles.

The collection yields both deliberate and accidental insights: the book is by turns funny (my favorite essay is titled “A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco”), gross (there are several recipes for squirrel and many types of “prairie oysters”), and remarkable (a list of New York diner slang includes “burn the British” for toasted English muffins, and “nervous pudding” for gelatin dessert). But even more, the essays reveal a variety of American cultures that took hundreds of years to develop, and that have radically changed—in some cases disappeared—just a few short years after. What might have been a mildly interesting book sixty years ago, because of the lapse of time and the great changes that have taken place in America since, has become a valuable look into the lives of people who were eating as well as they could during the worst of one our greatest economic depressions. It turns out that when they ate well, Americans often ate incredibly well; many of the descriptions—of Italian food in Vermont, Basque banquets in Idaho, and oyster roasts in North Carolina—sound delicious.

Perhaps best of all, many of the essays come with recipes. These are not the carefully constructed, near-scientific sets of measurements and directions popularized by The Joy of Cooking that one now finds in fancy food rags such as Gourmet or Saveur, but offhand lists of ingredients and a few quick instructions, such as “put ham in pot and smother until done.” The entire set of instructions for making “Utah Salami of Wild Duck,” which is preceded by a list of more than 15 different ingredients (none of them flour) is:

Cook gently not less than three hours.
Thicken slightly with scorched flour.

Most interesting, however, is how communal cooking often used to be. One essay begins: “When oyster trucks from the coast begin penetrating Alabama’s interior, the residents of Eufaula start plans for one of their favorite winter festivities, the oyster roast.” There are numerous depictions of beachside clambakes, barbecue fundraisers, possum hunts, spring food festivals, picnics, banquets, and even a “foot wash.” One memorable description involves cowboys gelding their steers and then cooking and eating the leftover testicles while young “drugstore cowboys” from town look on in hesitation and awe.

In a time where a small but significant number of people are beginning to re-discover the importance of both “real-time social networking,” and the value of local, “artisanal” and hand-made foods, the old American tradition Kurlansky brings to the fore are well worth exploring and perhaps, even bringing back.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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