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The Food of a Younger Land

Author Mark Kurlansky unearths a Depression-era project to document the country’s food traditions.

Food of a Younger Land, book cover

Food of a Younger Land
Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books, 2009, 416 pages, $27.95

Squirrel mulligan, scrambled poke greens, ash cakes, and cherry bounce: a menu to tempt the early-20th-century Southerner.

And maybe even the modern foodie.

Out of the annals of Americana, food writer Mark Kurlansky pulls these and other recipes for The Food of a Younger Land. With a selection of short stories, poems, letters, and lists from the unfinished Federal Writers’ Project book America Eats, Kurlansky’s book documents what Americans of the 1940s cooked in their kitchens, restaurants, and the great outdoors.

The Food of a Younger Land offers an anthropological look at regional cuisine before the country’s landscape was dotted with restaurant chains offering the same fare from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine. Lumberjacks, threshers, and pioneers, each with their own foods and customs, populate the book. Kurlansky details forgotten food traditions, such as Alabama foot washings, and longtime food debates, such as whether to crush the mint in a Kentucky mint julep.

As Kurlansky notes in the book’s introduction, “The Depression had awakened in Americans a deep interest in the country and for the first time in its history it was becoming fashionable to examine and look for the meaning of America and what it was to be American.”

<i>America Eats</i> 1

Library of Congress Photos from WPA America Eats files.

The stories for America Eats were the result of a national effort to get the unemployed working again. As part of the Emergency Relief Act of 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and charged it with the task of finding work for millions of unemployed Americans. The WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project published books, employing the country’s out-of-work writers—a catchall term that included advertising copywriters and secretaries, as well as authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. At its peak in April 1936, the Federal Writers’ Project employed 6,686 people.

Katherine Kellock, a writer-turned-WPA administrator, envisioned America Eats as a book on “American cookery and the part it has played in the national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes and customs.”

But the deadline for copy was set at the end of November 1941, and when Pearl Harbor was bombed days later, files were left in disarray, and America Eats was never edited or published. In May 1942 the Federal Writers’ Project became the Writers’ Unit of the War Services, which produced military guides and history. The Works Progress Administration officially shut down in 1943.

<i>America Eats</i> 2

Library of Congress Photos from WPA America Eats files.

From the raw America Eats manuscripts—many without a byline—stacked in the U.S. Library of Congress, Kurlansky says he selected “not always the best,” but the most interesting pieces.

Appropriately, many of the pieces selected for the book center around the mythology of food—the book details the origins of everything from hush puppies to Waldorf salad. Brunswick stew, named for a Virginia county, is lent a legendary quality by writer Eudora Ramsay Richardson: “The lazy fellow, whose talents were not culinary, dumped into one pot all the provisions, including the squirrels that had just been killed. So, a miracle was wrought.”

Kurlansky’s introductions manage to touch on a wide range of topics, from the pre-Civil-Rights-era South to global warming. He clarifies the original text, points out contradictions among pieces, and highlights facts that are both surprising and humorous: “The Minnesota story…made the dubious claim that the slimy gelatinous fish [lutefisk] ‘could safely be counted on to appeal to even the most finicky appetite.’ The Wisconsin essay, with more candor, asserted, ‘Nobody likes lutefisk at first.’”

<i>America Eats</i> 3

Library of Congress Photos from WPA America Eats files.

The Food of a Younger Land also illustrates the ways America has changed since the 1940s—and in doing so, it documents the things that haven’t. That Southern menu of squirrel mulligan (a stew), scrambled poke greens (the first salad of spring), ash cakes (cakes baked in the ashes of the hearth), and cherry bounce (a whiskey and cherry drink of plantation origins) may sound foreign to many readers, but modern variations of the recipes can be found online and are still being prepared in kitchens across the South.

Yet The Food of a Younger Land, like America Eats before it, lacks a distinct conclusion. The sudden transition from “Oklahoma City’s Famous Suzi-Q Potatoes” to an informal bibliography is jarring and adds to the already chaotic nature of the book.

As a whole, the book is an enjoyable glimpse back in time. From fried grunion to persimmon pudding, the foods of 1940s America were as diverse as its people.


Laura KaliebeLaura Kaliebe wrote this article for Climate Action, the Winter 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Laura is a Seattle-based writer.

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