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Writer Mark Kurlansky is known for his best-selling accounts of how lowly foodstuffs have affected world events. Among his best-selling books are "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," and "Salt: A World History." In his latest book, Kurlansky acts less like a food historian than an Indiana Jones-type archeologist. In "The Food of a Younger Land," Kurlansky unearths a forgotten government treasure trove of recipes and eating traditions to take readers back to pre-World War II America. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: 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 dug into a big pot of Squirrel Mulligan, between folks who celebrated special events with Cocoa 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 homemade. 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 his gastronomical time travel tour is that it dispels the assumption that regional, seasonal and homemade always implies healthy. The aforementioned lutefisk for instance, is a traditional Scandinavian way of turning codfish gelatinous through the use of lye. Yum. Nine years ago, when Kurlansky was doing research for an anthology of food writing, he 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 6000 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 Catherine Kaylock(ph) 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 in to 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 essays 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.
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 made me yearn for the luncheonettes and drugstore 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 belly-wash and strawberry jello was mystifyingly called Jack Benny in the Red. "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.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Food of a Younger Land" by Mark Kurlanksy. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reflects on "American Idol." This is FRESH AIR.
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