Much of today’s food writing describes extreme fare, from molecular gastronomists who present bison on a pine branch festooned with candy canes to state-fair vendors who serve deep-fried Twinkies. But what about everyday meals cooked in America’s kitchens, both now and in the past? Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, a collection of anecdotes, essays, recipes, and food lore gathered in the late 1930s and early ’40s by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, reminds us that what we eat and how we fix it is the bread and butter of the people’s history.
A few years ago, Kurlansky, the author of celebrated food histories including Cod (1997) and Salt (2002), ran across a thick file of unedited manuscripts in the Library of Congress that were compiled for a book called America Eats, a project derailed by World War II. He had the good sense not to meddle too much, adding short introductions where necessary but letting the material he selected—some of it by well-known writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren, but most by obscure and even unidentified contributors—speak for itself.
The Food of a Younger Land chronicles the American culinary landscape before interstate highways, mass-distributed frozen foods, and McDonald’s hamburgers, when food was truly regional and had to be eaten in season. Each section is devoted to a different part of the country—the Northeast, the South, the Far West, and so on. We read of Vermont’s spring ritual of sugaring off maple syrup; the two fiercely feuding schools of Northeast clam chowder (milk versus tomato); a possum-eating club in Polk County, Arkansas; Indian salmon feasts on Puget Sound; and “A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco.” My favorite piece is a jeremiad by Oregon historian and novelist Claire Warner Churchill against “your whipped potatoes, your fluffed potatoes, your watered pastes that pass in many restaurants for honest to God mashed potatoes.”
Few ingredients were exotic, and the spices cooks used weren’t any rarer than ginger and nutmeg. Animal fat—pork belly, bacon, lard—was a dietary mainstay and the first thing to go into the pan. Frying wasn’t the oh-if-you-must technique that it is today, but rather the default preparation method for most home cooks. To call these simpler times is to ignore the perspective of the women doing the work (men occasionally cooked for social gatherings, but they were usually mighty scarce in the kitchen). One writer recalls, as a young girl, the long days she spent preparing meals for the threshing crew that came in and dirtied the spotless linen and shoveled down roast and pie. Food socials were highly anticipated events that often lasted all day, though by 1940, the advent of the automobile was taking its toll. For example, the May Breakfast in southern New England, an elaborate early-morning spread at which people had once lingered all day, was losing its leisurely air, as one observer rued: “People eat, shake hands all around, jump into their cars and either return home or go to work.”
Today, amid the folderol of celebrity chefs and the fetishization of dining out, conversations about food have gotten a bit fussy. It’s worth bearing in mind the warning of Kansas-born journalist William Lindsay White, who praised traditional western fare, such as Son of a Bitch stew, that had “stalwartly resisted the corrupting inroads of the dainty recipes of the ladies’ magazines”: “No race will spring to man the barricades with its stomach stuffed with Waldorf Salad nestled in a leaf of lettuce plus a dab of store-bought mayonnaise on top.” There’s no telling what White would have said about the grave prospects for America’s future if he’d been faced with the abomination of a low-calorie salad-dressing spray. But it probably wouldn’t have been printable.
Sarah L. Courteau is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.