book review: The Food of a Younger Land

On my old blog, ChefBlog, I would review books from time to time. Usually, of course, these books were about cooking (duh/lol). I recently read a book that was about the history of food in America. I found it especially interesting to read since I'm discovering a whole new culture and cuisine here in Tennessee. (Heads up, Los Angeles, you can find fried pickle chips just about anywhere here, not just at Pure Luck, but I've yet to find jackfruit carnitas in the South, so I will still have to come back every so often.)

The book is "The Food of a Younger Land" by Mark Kurlansky.

How this book came to be is a really fascinating story: In the late 1930s, the government in Washington created an agency called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was charged with finding work for millions of unemployed Americans, in every imaginable field. One branch of this was the Federal Writers Project (FWP), managed by Katherine Kellock, which produced hundreds of guidebooks on America. It was Kellock who came up with the idea of an anthology of stories and recipes from all over the United States.

This is when Americans primarily ate 'home cooking', which is to say, what you ate when you were 'out' was probably similar to what you ate at home. The authors of each section describe the way people ate before the boom of industrialized fast-food, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything as refined as what customers expect when going to today's restaurants.

This isn't a recipe book -- although a few recipes are included -- the focus is on the stories regions and foods discussed , including:
  • Rhode Island Jonny Cakes
  • Minnesota Lutefisk
  • Indiana Persimmon Pudding
  • Florida Conch
  • New York City Oyster Stew
  • Georgia Possum & Taters
  • Nebraska Lamb Fries
  • North Carolina Chitterlings

In the author's own words (somewhat condensed by me), he offers this disclaimer:
This book is not an attempt to produce what America Eats might have been if it had been edited and pieces selected. Instead, it is a sampling of the broad and rich mountain of copy that the dying Federal Writers Project generated for this, their final effort... The reader can experience the archaeologists adventure that I had sifting through these unedited and unpublished manuscripts with all their blemishes, including misspellings, bad English, bad Spanish, and chaotic recipes... In the process, forgotten cuisines and a vanished world are unearthed. This is the fun of finding a seventy-year-old manuscript.
And what fun it was to read! Each section had its own chorus of contributors, and each individual writer had a distinct voice.

Some writers were more well known than others. Remembering that the FWP was created to give the unemployed an opportunity to work, these stories were written by authors of various skill. Some were already well-known writers, others were unknown and remained so, while still others became novelists of some renown. Kurlansky's preface of each anecdote includes any accolades and distinctions received by its writer.

While I happily recommend reading "The Food of a Younger Land", I can't decide whether I should suggest this is a good bedside book... Anthologies, by nature, are good for reading in self-limiting portions, but this was such a fun read that I kept turning the pages long after I should have been asleep!

Disclaimer: received from the publisher as a review copy

1 comment:

ChefsLineJenn said...

What a great book review. I saw another of this book (Slate) but NOW am convinced to read. Grazi!