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A Return To America's Gustatory Past

Mark Kurlansky is a food historian. His previous books include <em>Salt: A World History</em> and <em>Cod: A Biography of the Fish That changed the World</em>.
Mark Kurlansky is a food historian. His previous books include Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That changed the World.

Forget the Red State/Blue State divide. Back in 1940, America was sliced, diced and balkanized among those citizens who thought nothing of chowing down at cafeterias called "Automats" and those who tucked into a pot of Squirrel Mulligan; between folks who celebrated special events with Coca Cola Parties and those who went wild over Fried Beaver Tail.

In that golden age before America was colonized by the Golden Arches, American food was regional, seasonal and home made. Depending on who was doing the cooking and where you were pulling up your chair, you might be treated to a bowl of Maine baked beans or forced to slurp your way through a Wisconsin Lutefisk supper.

These and many other (often dubious) dishes are chronicled in Mark Kurlansky's fascinating new book, The Food of a Younger Land. An unexpected byproduct of taking Kurlansky's gastronomical time travel tour is that it dispels the notion held sacred by many contemporary foodies that regional, seasonal and homemade always equals "healthy." The aforementioned "lutefisk," for instance, is a traditional Scandinavian way of turning codfish gelatinous through the use of lye. Mmmm.

Nine years ago, when Kurlansky was doing research for an anthology of food writing, the author says he stumbled upon the dusty archives of the America Eats project — an undertaking of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project which was a wing of Franklin Roosevelt's WPA. The Federal Writers Project provided employment for over 6,000 out-of-work writers, among them Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren. During the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project produced those now classic guidebooks to all 48 states, but by 1939 it needed another assignment. That's when Katherine Kellock, the director of the program, came up with the idea of a guide to American food and eating traditions which would shed a light on everyday American society.

A great idea; but America Eats was never completed. The deadline for all copy was Thanksgiving week, 1941; the writers, of course, dragged their heels and then Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II blew America Eats out of the water. The rough copy — typed, on onionskin — that writers across the country had sent into Washington was boxed up and shelved.

In an introductory essay about the America Eats project, Kurlansky says the boxes constitute "an untouched paper trail into the past" and claims that these unedited essays offer a more authentic taste of pre-war America than the smoothed-out final product might have done. Certainly, not all the entries here are savory to our modern palate. In an eggnog recipe from Kentucky, for instance, African Americans are referred to as "darkies" and Kurlansky also unearthed correspondence about whether Jewish cooking traditions should be cut from the final project because they were not truly "American."

In The Food of a Younger Land, Kurlansky has selected some of the most interesting rough copy — including eating rituals, recipes, and even poems about food — and grouped them according to the proposed America Eats plan in five broad regional categories. He's also supplied short commentaries about the entries and some of their lesser-known authors. All together, the pieces Kurlansky has collected here constitute a marvelous goulash of gastronomical oddities and antiques; a remembrance of tastes and customs past.

I know I'm biased, but the essays about grazing in New York City make me yearn for the luncheonettes and drug store counters of yore that had faded away by the time I was a kid. Here are some selections from an entry on "New York Soda Luncheonette Slang and Jargon": An order for toasted English muffins was "Burn the British"; soup was "Bellywash"; and Strawberry Jell-O was (mystifyingly) called "Jack Benny in the Red." Depending on where you're from, you might feel similar unearned nostalgia about Minnesota Booya or Oregon Blue Ruin.

The Food of a Younger Land is a tasty time capsule of pre-World War II America, but beyond that, it's a tribute to the work of hundreds of mostly forgotten writers and to a federal project that once put a lot of those hungry writers to work.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.