Friday , February 23 2024
Explore America’s forgotten cuisine of the early 20th century.

Book Review: The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

I would get along well with Mark Kurlansky, author of The Food of a Younger Land.  My sister says I remember all our vacations by the food we ate wherever we travelled. Kurlansky has long studied cuisines, and has a natural curiosity about what people eat.

This is how he came across the US federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). When the program was created in 1935 to find work for millions of Americans, the Federal Writers’ Project sent researchers all around the country to document what Americans ate. The writers then developed guidebooks that proved to be extremely popular. Imagine Kurlansky’s joy in finding those records in the Library of Congress one fine day.

Kurlansky is a food and entertainment writer, author of award-winning books, a James A. Beard award-winner, and a Bon Appetit American Food and Entertaining Award winner, among other distinguished prizes. He knows food, knows both how to do effective research, and how to convert it into fascinating reading.

In The Food of a Younger Land, Kurlansky gives us a map of America, through its food, long before the interstate highway system, before franchises and fast food. The chapters are loosely divide into five American regions: Northeast, South, Middle West, Far West and Southwest.

Born in the 1940s, Kurlansky recalls life in America without fast food, when all food was regional, and “home cooking” was the only road to eating. “The interstate highway system had not yet been built, and Americans traveled through dark colored cars with standard transmission, split windshields, and simple dashboards with radios that worked on occasion and clocks that never kept time.”

To write The Food of a Younger Land, Kurlansky tracked down Library of Congress documents including the files from America Eats, a compendium produced by the administrator of the Federal Writers Program, Katherine Kellock. Her book researched common food and eating traditions across America, covering the interesting local debates back when folks disagreed about the correct way to make clam chowder, rabbit, and traditional old recipes. It even included a transcript of a hilarious plan to outlaw serving mashed potatoes in Oregon restaurants. Sadly, Kellock's project was later abandoned due to WWII.

While you’ll learn history and marvel over the characters that made America unique, in The Food of a Younger Land, you won't be tempted to recreate some of the unusual foods developed at the time. Using only the resources at hand, many inventive cooks learned imaginative ways of feeding hungry people on whatever protein was available.

The Food of a Younger Land packs in a wealth of American geographic history but is also full of wonderful, little known literary styles, regional language differences, and dialects portrayed in the anecdotes and stories. The book is made richer by Kurlansky’s own commentaries, stimulated by years of eating and studying cuisine with the awe and respect food deserves in America

Take corn, for example:

When the Sioux lived in northern Minnesota, they ate the wild rice that grows in the shallow lakes. After they learned to raise corn and beans, the work in the field was done by women. And what work it was: “The women planted it quite deep, and when the little plants had two or three leaves, the women loosened the earth around the roots with their fingers. When the plants were taller, the women made the earth into a little hill around each plant, using hoes for the work. … The women gathered the ripe ears of corn in their blankets and spread them on platforms or scaffolds. The women and children had to stand on the platforms to drive away the birds that came to get the corn.“

Beyond cattle ranches, Kurlansky writes of the “Kansas Beef Tour” a regular event in the area, under the auspices of the county agent, with visitors from State Agricultural college and the Dept. of Agriculture in Washington.

Here’s how the beef tour worked:

“It takes a whole day, and is routed through the best farms and ranches. At each stop the visitors arrange their cars in a huge half moon and stay in their seats so as not to frighten the cattle. Cowboys then drive the herd as close as possible, which is seldom closer than 50 yards from the line of windshields. Any nearer and the steers take fright and stampede, hightailing it off across the creek and over the hills on the horizon. But each cattleman has had a chance to judge them. He can study a 1,400 pound steer a city block away and tell you his weight within three pounds.”

After a lunch at a ranch, serving barbecue hind quarters of a prime steer, the cattlemen made their decisions on which cattle to purchase.

This colorful story includes an actual recipe for Son of a Bitch, a companion dish to Kansas Barbeque. I'll only reveal this much of the recipe. I think you'll agree it's enough:  "First milady will take the entrails of two medium sized steers, but will extract from them only the heart, liver, kidneys and intestines, which she will carefully clean." Read the book if you're hungry for more.

American fast food was not born under the golden arches. Some 30 years, before that, in 1912, the first Automat opened in New York. The Automat was where a handful of nickels would get you the item visible behind the glass door.

 “A sight to the out-of-towner, and an honored institution among the city’s millions, is the mechanical lunchroom known to fame as the Automat. This type of self-service eating place is the result of deep probing into the needs of the five-minute metropolis center. Hence, the man-in-a hurry is worried by no middle-men; his relationship with his fodder, over which he may gloat, ruminate or despair, is strictly private.”

The Food of a Younger Land is a remarkable study of American life in the early 20th century, and would be a delightful gift for foodies, and for those who love to reminisce about the good old days.

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