Bound Together By Food”
A Review of
Food of a Younger Land.
by Mark Kurlansky.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
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, regional, and traditional – from the lost WPA files
by Mark Kurlansky.
Hardcover: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Much of what I’ve read in the last year about the history in this country of food and eating, particularly in the likes of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food or Paul Robert’s The End of Food, traces the rise of the hegemonic, centralized industrial food production that we find ourselves in today. Less seems to have appeared that is as comprehensive in regards to the eating practices abandoned for this new model, which is exactly where Mark Kurlansky’s new book The Food of a Younger Land picks up. To reproduce the lengthy subtitle is descriptive of the book: 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.
The impetus for Food of a Younger Land is the author’s discovery of an archive of unpublished files from the Federal Writer’s Project toward a project around 1940 called America Eats, designed to collect regional essays into a book on “American cookery and the part it has played in the national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes and customs. Emphasis should be divided between food and people” (14-15). The WPA dissolved before the all of the pieces were collected, edited, and published and so what remains in the archives are individual writers and many essays, poems, recipes, and mythologies about food at the time of the writing, and dating back before the turn of the 20th century, or at times to pre-colonial America. Divided into regional categories, America Eats and Food of a Younger Land groups America into the Northeast, South, Middle West, Far West, and Southwest, and each region takes on very different practices and menus, indicative of a food economy defined first by geography and tradition.
Some of the most telling stories in the book are centered around a particular large gathering: the May Breakfast in Rhode Island, the Vermont Sugaring-Off, threshing in Nebraska, the Lutefish Supper in Wisconsin, and the Beef Tour in Kansas. These stories take into account not only the food, but also the larger social context of which the food is a part. At a Sugaring-Off, for instance, neighbors gather when the sugar is being collected from the Maple trees, and “there’s something about a sugaring-off party that makes people loosen up, drop the barriers, relax into jovial spirits and easy friendliness…The men and women and children swarming around the sugarplace share a common hunder, with the delightful means of satisfying it close at hand and free as the March breeze. The rigid winter is broken and gone, the feel of spring is in the air, and people grow mellow in the sunshine” (67). Similarly, the Lutefish Supper sounds much like Garrison Keiler’s Lake Wobegon: “All day [the diners] have been preparing to gorge themselves, to eat as they eat only at lutefisk suppers…The hungry guest must wait…until he hears his number called out. And so he sits, sometimes for as long as two hours, in one of the pews of the steamy, fish-stuffy church. And yet he doesn’t mind waiting very much; it is much like waiting to see the President or the Duke of Windsor” (230-1).
Part of what makes The Food of a Younger Land such an engaging read is connecting with the food and stories of a particular region, especially when there are still traces of that regional food. In my own region, The Middle West, there is much that I recognize in food, locations, and practices. A recipe for “Indiana Persimmon Pudding” is not too different from what my mom makes with a recipe she obtained from a teacher out in rural Indiana. The recipe for “Indiana Pork Cake” – although I’ve never heard of such a thing – originates from an address less than two miles away from my home. A commonality of most of the recipes in this book are simple, plain ingredients, with only a few references to canned tomatoes or a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, which reminds me of one of Michael Pollan’s recommendations for eating: “Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize As Food.” At the time of America Eats, my Midwestern, Southwestern, and German immigrant Great Grandmothers would no doubt have been cooking and eating food much more regional than what I eat today. The Midwest, Kurlansky notes, “although today the cuisine has been ravaged by fast food, it was a region with a very strong sense of its own food. It was a simple food, based on local products and local traditions, often connected with a specific town…It was the kind of food best found in people’s homes and not restaurants” (201).
Repeatedly throughout this book the preference for local food is confirmed, as in “Foods Along U.S. 1 in Virginia,” which closes with the recommendation that “if the tourist does not find the Virginian foods along the highway, he should knock at some farmhouse door, register his complaint against American standardization, and be served after a manner that conforms to the ancient rules of hospitality” (120). The geography of food is continued in “Kansas Beef Tour:” “The eastern visitor on vacation, driving west across the low mountains, heading down into the Mississippi valley and then beginning the slow climb toward the Rocky Mountains, is frequently mystified by the Barbecue Belt. He leaves the hot dog behind him as he crosses the Alleghenies. He enters the hamburger country at the Ohio valley. But as he nears the cattle country of the Southwest the barbecue stands displace the hamburger joints, and continue unbroken to the Pacific Coast” (241).
Similarly, the Conchs, “a group of Anglo-Saxon people of Bahamian descent now living on the Florida Keys, so-called because of their fondness for eating the conch shellfish” may describe most simply a people tied to a regional food: “Besides conchs, grits and grunts is our favorite eats…We can’t afford much else, but even if we could, I guess they would still be our favorites.” Food of a Younger Land extends many more models of people and land bound together through food, from a relatively short time ago in our history. It is indicative of the degree to which our food has been “standardized,” but also offers many reminders of other ways of eating that can begin in any of the regions represented herein.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com