Defining dishes

A treasure trove of eating rituals, recipes and gastronomic oddities reveals much about American life before fast food and frozen dinners

Los Angeles sheriff

The Food of a Younger Land
By Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books
New York 2009

Reviewed by Gay Bilson

Hard on the heels of any contemporary catastrophe–climate change, global financial collapse, the rise in status of chefs–comes a slew of books proving nothing is unprecedented.

A recent London Review of Books includes publications that address our lack of efficiency and expertise: The Thrifty Cookbook, The Thrift Book and Jamie's Ministry of Food: Anyone Can Learn to Cook in 24 Hours. Included as well are two new editions of 1940s manuals: Make Do and Mend: Keeping Family and Home Afloat on War Rations, and Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations.

The London reviewer mentions that David Cameron, the Tory leader who aims to be Prime Minister, is promising a "thrifty government".

It is with some relief then, to have come upon Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land. Its publication is as perfectly timed as all the aforementioned books. But instead of preaching thrift, it is a celebration of a remarkable project that came out of the Great Depression, called the Federal Writers' Project, which provided work for more than 6000 unemployed writers. This was an offshoot of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt who was returned as Democratic president in 1932, when a third of Americans were out of work.

The writers' project was one of the many strands developed under the WPA. Kurlansky quotes the poet W. H. Auden who wrote that the project was "one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state". There was of course much criticism of federal support for writers (communists under the bed covers and "boondoggling") and as a result, the idea of specific writers' projects was proposed.

The first was the brainchild of writers' project director and writer Katherine Kellock who suggested that the writers produce American guidebooks, resulting in the successful American Guide Series.

With this project nearing completion in 1939, Kellock proposed another, America Eats. Timing again was of the essence. The Depression was easing, war loomed; industrial foods were gaining a large market share and foodways (the cultural, social and economic practices relating to food production and consumption) were about to change radically.

Kellock asked her writers to keep it "light but not tea shoppe, masculine not feminine" (this last an attempt to have food writing taken seriously). "In describing group meals tell how they are organised, who supplies and cooks the food, what the traditional dishes are, what local opinion is on heretical variations in the recipe, and what the group mores are in connection with the meal," she said.

America Eats was never published. Lyle Saxon, a highly regarded Southern writer was appointed editor but with copy still to come, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. In 1942, the writers' project was reformed as part of the war effort and Kellock dismissed. She handed over a jumble of contributions to the Library of Congress, where, some 60 years later, Mark Kurlansky found them. We should at this point pause and give thanks to libraries everywhere.

Kurlansky dedicates his book to the memory of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who gave decades of his life to the collection of oral histories of working class Americans. In large part, the charm of The Food of a Younger Land is that of its regional voices.

The Northeast, the Middle West and the South West sections all include lively, singular opinions but the South wins hands down, another country altogether. Katherine Palmer's contribution, "North Carolina Chitterling Strut" is worthy of the great Eudora Welty (who, astonishingly, made slight contribution to the project and is included by Kurlansky). Palmer's "story" is one of the longest in the book and achieves everything that Kellock wanted which was that "Emphasis should be divided between food and people".

"Truletta Spoon, belle of chitlin struts for the past two seasons back, sits beside Aunt Orianna. Truletta is wearing a bright yellow cotton dress, which goes well with her russet skin. A wide red belt encircles her slim waist. Red slippers are dyed with ‘sto-bought' colors.

"‘My Granny say chitlin dinner sets better iffen a mess of collards and green vinegar pepper goes long with. I likes mine seasoned with red pepper. I have eat sweet taters and biscuit served at strut suppers, but my fambly likes to refresh our hawg meat with corn pone.

"‘Does you cut yo chitlins afore they is cooked, Auntie?" Mehitable asks respectfully, ‘or does you cook 'em afore you cuts 'em?'"

Back in the Northeast, there's a terrific recipe for lemon pickle but the tone is far less full of song. Then again, "Vermont Sugaring-Off," contributed by Roaldus Richmond, is a lovely and quite technical description of the evaporation of the maple sap into syrup: "There's something about a sugaring-off party that makes people loosen up, drop barriers... A sugaring-off brings out the better side of folks."

Kurlansky, introducing this contribution, notes that the winter temperature has risen two to three degrees and the "syruping season" is now begun weeks earlier than it used to. Once, 80 per cent of the world production of maple syrup was American; now, 75 per cent is from Canada.

The Middle West section includes an anonymous contribution (there are many of these) describing "Wisconsin Sour-Dough Pancakes". It begins with a quote from a Paul Bunyan story: "There are two kinds of lumber camp cooks, the Baking Powder Buns and the Sour-dough Stiffs. Sour-dough Sam belonged to the latter school. He made everything but coffee out of sour-dough. He had only one arm and one leg, the other members having been lost when his sour-dough barrel blew up."

The subtitle of this wonderful book is long but worth quoting: "A portrait of American food–before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation's food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files."

You might quarrel with "before frozen foods" as ice cream had been around for some decades, and in the Northeast and West, the weather would have acted as freezer for carcasses and cuts of meat. And describing the WPA files as "lost" is surely to exaggerate and undermine the role of the Library of Congress. Let's say they were stored, and are still stored, and available to anyone who wants access.

Mark Kurlansky came upon these files while researching a different book. You may know him from his admired books, Cod and Salt, and most recently, Choice Cuts, a compilation of food writing.

In his introduction, he says he is always curious about what people eat. "We know everything about Paris restaurants but nothing about what Paris eats," he writes, and although this is to exaggerate, he has a point.

In On Digestion, I suggested an extra question for the Australian Census form: "What did you eat for dinner last night and breakfast this morning and where did you eat these meals?" Ideally, "Who you ate with" would also be included.

Food journalism and cookery books are almost exclusively aspirational and because of this, they are not a reflection of national eating habits and cookery skills. Yet our "cuisine", whatever that word implies, is defined by what this kind of writing prescribes. The exceptions are for the most part amateur compilations by particular communities and possibly some of the Country Women's Association cookbooks.

The WPA files include a contribution on Sioux and Chippewa food, as well as Choctaw Indian dishes. There is a piece on the Basque food of the Boise Valley; there are references to the Creole food of Louisiana and to the Scandinavian and Germanic traditions retained in the Middle West.

Australia too has its indigenous population and its waves of immigration. It is too late to undertake an "Australia Eats" for the same period as America Eats attempted to do but not too late to unravel what we eat now in all its commonality and diversity, its lack and its abundance. The French lawyer, politician, and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, in the early 19th century, famously wrote, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are."