The Food of a Younger Land

A Portrait of American Food–Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal

by Mark Kurlansky

I didn’t know that Mark Kurlansky is considered a food historian, I simply consider him one of my favorite yummy book authors.

The background of the material in this book is intriguing on its own: The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was established during the Great Depression to improve employment. Hundreds of writers are put on the government’s payroll. Some may be established writers, some journalists, some just worked marginally with writing. The FWP’s first project was a series of travel guides of the states and deemed a success. However, when the guides were completed in 1938, and there was still no end in sight to the Depression, a new project was started. America Eats was intended as a guide to regional recipes and social traditions involving food. The project was halted after Pearl Harbor, and the materials collected thus far were archived in the Library of Congress.

Author Mark Kurlansky dug through those old papers, and from them emerged an interesting look about American food circa 1938. Some of the original writings are recipes, and some are valuable and illuminating glimpse into the past of how American, especially ethnic Americans and Native American tribes, prepared and enjoyed their food. Which, needless to say, is very different from what we have today.

While some parts, such as recipes, of the book are rather boring, some of the articles included are writing with zest and humor, and reflect the different personalities of the authors. Mark Kurlansky’s introduction to each session binds the articles together beautifully. It was delightful to read about the origins of dishes, and the description of the parties certainly makes me wish I were there, even if those were food I don’t usually crave for. It’s a shame that with ease of transportation and travel, as well as the disappearance of local wildlife, many of these regional specialties only survive in memory now.

My favorite line is the one about geoduck clam: “There is no polite way to describe geoduck clam. It looks like a giant clam which has bitten off an even larger penis.” Ha ha ha… It also surprises me to hear of the preparation of duck wrapped and baked in clay… it’s similar to a Chinese dish called beggar chicken (supposed the beggar didn’t have anything to cook the chicken with after he stole it, so he just wrapped it in mud and baked it in a fire). I also didn’t know of the Basque population in Boise, Idaho. Indeed, this is an eye-opening book.

Published in: on August 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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