If you’re looking for stories on how to make ash cakes, the right way to skin a possum, or how to celebrate rivers overflowing with Pacific salmon you should take a read through Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land.
Kurlansky takes a very different approach to this book than he did in Cod or Salt by essentially becoming a curator for America Eats, which was started by the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression. The Federal Writers Project was organized by the WPA as a way to put out of work writers to good use by having them write books.
According to Kurlansky the idea for America Eats came from Katherine Kellock, who was a writer turned administrator “who thought of a book about the varied food and eating traditions throughout America, an examination of what and how Americans ate.” A topic that was far more interesting during the 1930s and 1940s, before the Interstate Highway System had connected the country, a time before fast food joints littered the landscape, and before frozen food and microwaves homogenized American cuisine.
The project split the country up into regions and sent writers out to gather stories, recipes, pictures, and histories of what people ate, including the disagreements people had about the “right way” to make local favorites. The focus on disagreements was a brilliant touch that captures all sorts of interesting variations in revered regional traditions like clam chowder and mint juleps.
The project came to a premature end with the beginning of World War II, when the country turned its focus away from the New Deal to the war effort; much of the material from America Eats ended up being collected and stored in boxes at the Library of Congress.
What Kurlansky has done is turn the projects’ leftovers into a treasure trove of recipes, anecdotes, and stories about how and what people ate during the early part of the twentieth century. What stands out is how different the regional cuisines were from each other and how much they were rooted in what was available locally.
The stories unearthed in this archive paint a fascinating picture of life in America. A great example is Estella Tenbrinks’ story looking back on what a thrilling sight the huge threshing machine with its coat of bright red paint was to one little girl on a Nebraska farm in the late 1890s. She writes about how much times had changed since then, how people’s social life wasn’t centered in the community anymore, that calories had been unheard of then, and that at the time she was writing canned vegetables were replacing fresh vegetables and that meals had become much simpler. It’s hard to think about the 1940s as a time when people were already concerned about counting calories, overly simple meals, and the preponderance of canned vegetables.
A theme running through the stories is how central food was to community events, how the act of harvesting was a time for celebration and bringing people together. Whether it was an Arizona Menudo Party, Georgia Oyster Roast, or Minnesota Booya Picnic, food was the common thread that tied people together and defined a community.
We also get to see how much closer people were to their food, with many of the celebrations centering around things people caught, grew, or raised themselves and in many ways how edible had a wider definition, with recipes for possum, beaver tail, rabbits, and pig fries.
The collection includes interesting recipes for things like Son of a Bitch, which was/is a companion dish to barbecue that I’m not sure I ever want to try consisting of the entrails from two medium sized steers, where the heart, liver, kidneys, and intestines are, thankfully, carefully cleaned, cut up into fist-sized chunks, tossed into a copper wash-boiler on an enameled stove. To this, you add a peck of peeled potatoes, a similar amount of tomatoes, and a quart of hot green Mexican chili peppers. After this hot mess is allowed to simmer for three hours or so, without ever coming to a boil, it is thickened with a five-pound sack of corn meal and of course salt to taste. In New Mexico, the dish is also known as Prosecuting Attorney, which may be one of the greatest names for a dish, ever.
There also are recipes for things I can’t wait to try, like Indiana persimmon pudding, Johnny cakes, and interesting ideas on how to make biscuits, barbecue sauces, stews, and much, much, more. I also can’t wait to figure out how to try some of the pit barbecue ideas used by both ranchers in the Southwest and the LA Police. The writing also has tantalizing hints of dishes from long ago that we should still know how to make, like a refreshing maple syrup drink favored by Indians in Minnesota that I’ve never heard about before and have no idea where to even start looking for, but rest assured I will find it.
The biggest downside to the book is the project’s unfinished nature. There are major holes, like barely anything from New York City or Chicago, along with minimal contributions from the Midwest and Southwest. That being said the collection is an excellent window into America’s past and a roadmap for rediscovering our culinary heritage.
Books by Mark Kurlansky