Mark Kurlansky – “The Food of a Younger Land” Riverhead Books 2009
Nowadays it’s fashionable to gripe about how bad the food we eat is. From movies like “Supersize Me” and the soon-to-be-released “Food Inc.” to books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” it appears America’s hunger for books and movies bashing our food system is insatiable (not that I am complaining) The title (and subtitle) of Mark Kurlansky’s newest book “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” would lead you to believe this will be another tome bashing the way things are while praising the way they used to be.
Fortunately this is not the case. Kurlansky, who has also written entire books on Oysters (“The Big Oyster: History on a Half-Shell), Cod (“Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World”) and salt (“Salt: A World History”) has combed through hundreds of submittals from a pre-WWII New Deal program called the Federal Writers Program to develop this book. One of the projects undertaken by writers working under this program was “America Eats” where several writers were enlisted to write about American regional food traditions and that is where Kurlansky gets his material from.
It’s easy to fault this book for things that are missing. I found it almost astonishing that there was no submittals included regarding Wisconsin’s cheese making, or the Friday Fish Fry (Kurlansky does include an article on a Smelt Fry from Washington State), or the state’s rich brewing heritage. It could simply be because those submittals never were written or Kurlansky just didn’t deem them worthy of inclusion, understandable given the enormous task he undertook in researching and compiling stories for this book.
That doesn’t mean Kurlansky leaves Wisconsin completely out of the mix. Included in the book are articles on the Wisconsin Lutefisk Supper and Sourdough Lumberjack Pancakes, something I knew nothing about until I read this book.
I found some of the articles to be very bland, such as a one paragraph section on Oklahoma Kush (a baked dish of cornbread, onions, and lard or butter) but most of them make for an interesting read. It was fun to read about the controversy over how to prepare a mint julep (whether to bruise the mint or not) and I really enjoyed all of the submittals about east coast seafood traditions. Some of the entries will kind of surprise you. For example it almost seems implausible that 80 years ago one of the FWP writers had to inform America about “A Los Angeles Sandwich Called A Taco,” something every American over the age of 3 probably could identify nowadays.
The title (and probably more so the subtitle) lead readers to believe that these traditions were all killed off with the onslaught of the highway system, industrialization of our food, and chain restaurant, fortunately many of these traditions are actually still thriving today. Kurlansky prefaces each section with an update letting readers know what traditions are still going on, which are dying, and which ones are long gone.
Should you wish to try to make some of the dishes featured in the book (who is up for some Arkansas Possum or Montana Fried Beaver Tail?), Kurlansky has included the original recipes if they were included in the FWP submittals. I for one plan on trying the Grand Central Oyster Bar Oyster Stew and Mississippi Seafood Gumbo.
Despite some of the weaker articles I really enjoyed this book and I think any fan of food history will enjoy it as well. I am one of those who enjoys cookbooks with a story behind the recipes and this book provides stories behind some of America’s oldest and most recognizable foods from the Southern barbecue to clam chowder. Anytime you compile a hodge-podge of completed, half-finished, and unedited submittals from over 80 years ago it’s going to be a challenge tying everything into a nice cohesive package but Kurlansky has done an admirable job.
Those those who enjoy this book may want to follow up by reading “America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA – the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food” by Pat Willard. Willard actually goes on the road in search of the foods and traditions from the Federal Writers’ Project.
Those searching for a more thorough discussion on Wisconsin food traditions have several other books to check out including a couple by Therese Allen: “The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State, “Home Cooked Culture: Wisconsin Through Recipes.”