Noted food writer Mark Kurlansky has unearthed a time machine in the dusty archives of the Library of Congress. The Food of a Younger Land, drawn from the yellowing carbon copies of a Federal Writers Project collection, propels Kurlansky and the reader back to pre-World War II American via the magic of regional cuisine and colloquial dining customs.
Conceived as one of the job-making arms of the Works Progress Administration (an earlier version of the current Stimulus Plan), the Federal Writers Project created work for unemployed writers, including the likes of Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and J. Frank Davis, as well as lesser-known authors of that time. Their mission was to chronicle the foods unique to specific regions of the country for a collection that would be titled America Eats.
That particular project, alas, was never completed. The files unearthed by Kurlansky are rough drafts, frozen in time when war became the focus of the people and the government. Without editorial polish, the compiled recipes, reminiscences, and mini-histories retain their full original flavor. Kurlansky has extracted sample pieces from each of the five regions covered: Northeast, South, Middle West, Far West, and Southwest, and these snapshots give us a glimpse into an America that still retained its separate and unique eating habits, local delicacies, and culinary peculiarities. Glimpses of the regional culture that accompanies these tidbits of pre-microwave dining is the cherry on a nostalgic sundae.
Even those who remember life before the Internet may get a little jolt when reminded of just how much our eating habits have changed in recent years. Essays from the Northeast bring back the automat and drugstore luncheonette (complete with a helpful list of short-order slang) and explain the origins of the great baked bean tradition. Southerners can recall classic dinner-on-the-ground favorites such as chitlins and beaten biscuits, or re-learn how to host a Coca-Cola party. Midwesterners will rejoice in J. Willis Kratzer’s defense of Nebraska Baked Beans and their superiority over the New England version, and then they can sample Minnesota’s Booya.
The section devoted to the Far West offers a brief introduction to geoducks and Colorado superstitions surrounding various foods, and even provides a Depression Cake recipe for the adventurous cook. By far the most entertaining entry for its quaintness is one from the Southwest - Don Dolan’s contribution entitled “A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco.”
Kurlansky’s experience in writing about food has honed his ability to choose all the right items and serve them in the most appetizing order. With previous bestsellers and award-winners such as Cod and Salt under his belt, he’s already proven that he knows what people crave. The excerpts he has chosen to include in The Food of a Younger Land are a fine sample of the larger collection, and make a perfect accompaniment to a lazy Sunday afternoon on a front porch swing.