I am constantly curious about what other people are eating. After friends return from traveling, I want to hear about their favorite meal of the trip. If I call my mom at dinnertime, I want to know what she’s cooking. When I ran into a good friend shortly after she crossed the finish-line of the New York Marathon, I couldn’t resist asking for details on her pre-race meal, even as she stood doubled-over nursing a cramp. My friends and co-workers know that any mention of an interesting meal could illicit a number of follow-up questions from my end. I just can’t help myself… When it comes to food, I have a curious mind.
So when I came across Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, based on the food traditions of the America my grandmothers grew up in, I felt I was the perfect audience. The collection of essays aims to be a portrait of American eating before our highways, chain restaurants and industrial farming made many of our dining habits homogeneous. And while I would disagree with Kurlansky’s perspective that our food traditions have all but disappeared, I won’t dispute the point that regional food is now something to be sought out; often buried under generic strip malls filled with Panera Bread, Chili’s and Chipotle. The many traditions that make up American eating have unquestionably evolved, and The Food of a Younger Land is an interesting reflection on where we’ve been.
Following his earlier food explorations, Salt and Cod, Kurlansky’s newest came together by chance. While doing research on another book, he stumbled across hundreds of unpublished essays by the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP), a depression-era employment agency created by the Works Progress Administration. The essays were meant to be published as a collective guide to regional American food; America Eats. But just as writers were sending in finished (or unfinished) pieces in December 1941, bombs rained on Pearl Harbor and the country went to war. Funding for the FWP dried up and the project dissolved before the America Eats essays could be edited or published.
As it turns out, this was at least one fortunate side effect of the war. Of the thousands employed by the FWP, a relative handful were legitimate writers and many of the essays that make up The Food of a Younger Land are drier than a high school history text-book. Other contributions are simply long lists of regional foods (though admittedly, I did appreciate the compilation of 1930’s diner kitchen lingo and will be looking for the next opportunity to use the line, “Burn one with axle grease Joe, I’ve got a blimp here waiting for a bellywash and an order of nervous pudding”). There are certainly a few good pieces of writing in the mix, like the husky recollection of cattle ranchers sharing Oklahoma Prairie Oysters and conversation around a fire; but for the most part Kurlansky’s introductions break up the monotony adding needed interest to the book.
More importantly, the essays hold more interest and benefit for the reader today, in hindsight, than they would have at the time they were written. Looking back on the way we ate two generations ago is a reminder of how far our everyday eating habits have strayed from the regional and seasonal. Without question, traditional food preparations still exist. My visits to the North Shore of Boston always include a least one bowl of signature chowder, and a recent visit to Brooklyn’s Di Fara Pizza reminded me of the care and attention some people still devote to preserving their own food traditions. But Kurlansky reminds that in the not too distant past regional eating was the standard, not the exception. And without a conscious effort to maintain regional American food cultures, they could end up a thing of the past.