Monday, May 18, 2009

The Food of a Younger Nation

Mark Kurlansky, author of two of the best-known commodity histories
(Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History), is just out with a brand new book that should get a lot of attention. The Food of a Younger Nationtakes us back to the food and eating habits of a younger America: Before the national highway system brought the country closer together; before chain restaurants imposed uniformity and low quality; and before the Frigidaire meant frozen food in mass quantities, the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional. It helped form the distinct character, attitudes, and customs of those who ate it.”

From the publisher’s description:

“In the 1930s, with the country gripped by the Great Depression and millions of Americans struggling to get by, FDR created the Federal Writers’ Project under the New Deal as a make-work program for artists and authors. A number of writers, including Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren, were dispatched all across America to chronicle the eating habits, traditions, and struggles of local people. The project, called ‘America Eats,’ was abandoned in the early 1940s because of the World War and never completed.

“The Food of a Younger Land unearths this forgotten literary and historical treasure and brings it to exuberant life. Mark Kurlansky’s brilliant book captures these remarkable stories, and combined with authentic recipes, anecdotes, photos, and his own musings and analysis, evokes a bygone era when Americans had never heard of fast food and the grocery superstore was a thing of the future. Kurlansky serves as a guide to this hearty and poignant look at the country’s roots.

“From New York automats to Georgia Coca-Cola parties, from Arkansas possum-eating clubs to Puget Sound salmon feasts, from Choctaw funerals to South Carolina barbecues, the WPA writers found Americans in their regional niches and eating an enormous diversity of meals. From Mississippi chittlins to Indiana persimmon puddings, Maine lobsters, and Montana beavertails, they recorded the curiosities, commonalities, and communities of American food.”

The book reminds me of my friend Joe Dabney’s Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Appalachian Cooking, which won a James A. Beard Award (as Kurlansky did for Cod). I get hungry whenever I read Joe’s book, and now the same thing happens with Kurlansky’s. My North Carolina grandmother made “Kentucky Wilted Lettuce”--leaf lettuce, torn, covered with sliced green onions and then “wilted” with hot bacon grease. She taught me how to put crumbled cornbread in buttermilk. I haven’t had wilted lettuce or cornbread in buttermilk in a long time.

The book describes “Oyster Stew Supreme at Grand Central, New York” and oyster roasts in Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina, as well as the other kind of culinary oysters--Kentucky Oysters” and “Oklahoma Prairie Oysters.” I’m a big fan of the first kind of oyster.

It's hard to believe that these wonderful pieces have remained unpublished for seventy years. Kurlansky came across them when he was working on Choice Cuts, a best-of collection of food writing through history. I’m glad he did, and that he had the sense to put them together into this book. A friend who teaches American Studies saw the book on my desk and said that she might use it in one of her classes. I can see that. Students would love it, and I can imagine a class drawing all sorts of observations about American culture(s) from the book. Plus it would be fun, as the piece in the book goes on for nearly 400 words about Kentucky oysters without saying that they are hog testicles.