Mark Kurlansky,
The Food of a Younger Land
(Riverhead, 2009)

Back during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the Works Progress Administration, a government agency devoted to keeping Amercan workers working. A part of the WPA was the Federal Writers' Project, created to, of all things, keep writers working. One of their early projects was a book, written by the major authors of the day, surveying the food habits of Americans -- their eating habits, traditions, recipes, parties, pretty much anything that related to food. Writers like Eudora Welty, Nelson Algren and Zora Neala Hurston hit the road in search of the real America and its food.

This book is the result. Oddly enough, it was never published in its day. No one is quite sure why. Maybe it was stamped received and filed by a minor bureaucrat and then forgotten. But now, after all these years, it has been found, edited by food writer Mark Kurlansky and sent out to a public that never knew the people and the years it covers. As you might expect, it is at one and the same time a fascinating document and a dull one, depending on whom you are reading. It seems only some writers took it seriously.

Nelson Algren contributes a fine article, "A Short History of the American Diet," which ranges all over the Midwest, offering anecdotes, recipes, bits of history, social commentary, the typical Algren mix with its typically sharp focus on the working class.

Other people didn't appear to take the project all that seriously and turned in mundane copy. Louis Jones contributes three short paragraphs on South Carolina Chicken Bog, which, in a series of generalizations, pretty much tell us that different people cook it differently. Jones excluded, the pieces centering on the American South are the most interesting for a couple of reasons: one, they detail a way of life that has disappeared, and, two, they reveal the casual racism that permeated America's thinking at the time. (Kurlansky says he cleaned up the racial talk but references to happy dancing darkies still remain.) Katherine Palmer gives up a word portrait of a "North Caroline Chitterling Strut," complete with dialogue in dialect. An example: "What you mean, 'how much?' Hector Shadwick, you been comin to this Chitlin strut long as I can 'member, and you knows the price is two-bits, twenty-five cents." When Moonstone Peeley, an "enormous negro with a bellshaped head, spreading nostrils, and huge mouth," continues to eat after everyone else has given up the ghost, the frolickers urge him on, shouting encouragement:

"Don't weaken, Moonstone, else we know you're gettin ol."

"Last time Moonstone done eat six plates smack clean. Betcha six bits he cain't do it tonight."

"I calls you. Jasper, hold the money. Moon, I's bettin on you for six plates or better."

My African-American friends were not thrilled with that description. Still, they said, it was an accurate reflection of how white people saw them at that time.

So you see, food is just one reason why this book should be widely read. It's a great trip through a period of time in our social history before chains and box stores, cable TV and the malls killed regional distinctions and differences in this country.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

19 June 2010

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