On My Shelf: The Food of a Younger Land

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The Food of a Younger LandFrom Mark Kurlansky, the author of Cod and Salt, comes The Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead Books: 397 pages, $27.95)-- "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."

That's quite a mouthful.

Reading this book at a time in history when eating local, organic, seasonal food in an urban setting like San Francisco is either a genuine passion, a fashion statement for those wealthy enough to afford it, or somewhere in between, it's a pleasure to find a book that chronicles a time when eating in such a manner was not a matter of choice or politics, but rather one's only option.

Culled from boxes of manuscripts originally intended for publication nearly 70 years ago as America Eats, Kurlansky took on the task of finishing what the Federal Writer's Project under Katherine Kellock could not, thanks to an interruption of funding and interest created by a little something people called World War II.

Writers and would-be writers in the late 1930's were given the task of collecting recipes, statistics, and food lore from around the country to create a comprehensive tome of American foods and local culinary traditions, region by region, the likes of which had never been attempted. All paid for by the United States government and its Federal Writer's Project, an organization poet W. H. Auden, as Kurlansky states, referred to as "one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state."


While Kurlansky's claim that American foodways are quickly becoming homogenized or altogether disappearing (for a good musing on this, please read Jane and Michael Stern's review) is arguable, and not all of the writing is, well, brilliant (Kurlansky shares that an alarming number of entries began with the phrase, "In the Fall, when the air turns crisp...), there are a number of gems worth mining in this work.

Some (very subjective) highlights include:

"Diddy-Wah-Diddy," a one-paragraph story by Zora Neale Hurston.

"An Oregon Protest Against Mashed Potatoes" by Claire Warner Churchill.

"New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon," uncredited

And, naturally, an uncredited poem entitled "Nebraskans Eat the Weiners."

It's good fun, and a grand source of old-fashioned-- even obscure-- recipes and traditions. I, for one, can't wait to try baking a Depression Cake (p. 316), but might just take a pass (for now) on Kentucky Oysters (p. 157). Not because I'm squeamish, mind you. It's just not the right season for it. I'll have to just wait until the fall.

For more on The Food of a Younger Land, listen to Michael Krasny's interview with Kurlansky on Forum here at KQED.