What we eat says a mouthful about where we come from, who we think we are and even who we want to be.
Behind every lesson of who conquered whom are tales of ingredients adopted and utensils borrowed. For every settler’s tale, there was a beloved skillet or a box of seeds — clutched in fear, homesickness and hope — that came on the journey.
That’s why I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Mark Kurlansky’s newest book, The Food of a Younger Land. Once upon a time, America did eat local. This book is “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.”
Kurlansky has compiled some of the writings collected through the Federal Writers Project, a federal stimulus program undertaken by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression (the one in the 1930s). For America Eats, writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty documented in poetry, prose and recipes everyday meals as well as special gatherings. These reports were snapshots of cultural history and economic conditions across the United States. America Eats began in 1939 but was abandoned due to the war and never finished.
The book is divided into the same regions used by the Federal Writers Project: Northeast, South, Middle West (I wish we still used that description), Far West, Southwest.
In the description of a New York Literary Tea, it is pointed out that tea is generally not served. Martinis and Manhattans hold court, with a nod to scotch if absolutely necessary.
New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon are decoded in five pages. (Luncheonette: another word gone by the wayside). “Twist it, choke it and make it cackle” refers to a chocolate malted milk with egg.
There is a description for making Hickory Ta-fulla, a Choctaw dish in which corn grits are cooked in a milk made from hickory nuts soaked in water.
Zora Neale Hurston’s heretofore unpublished piece is “Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” describing a mythical place with good food in abundance, particularly barbecue. “Even the dogs can stand flat-footed and lick crumbs off heaven’s tables,” she wrote.
Eudora Welty’s contribution is a pamphlet written for the Mississippi Advertising Commission. “Mississippi Food” is thought to be her only piece of food writing. The recipes and accompanying notes document how to make such things as whole jellied apples, eggs stuffed with spinach, and lye hominy. The ingredients for lye hominy are merely dried corn, oak ashes and salt, but it’s the cooking that is an all day effort, something I witnessed as a child.
From the Far West is “Depression Cake,” an essay about how a young woman’s desperate and resourceful experimentation led to a successful eggless, butterless cake for a July 4 gathering. Except for the bacon drippings, we’d call that cake vegan today.
Filled with descriptive writing and long lost traditions, The Food of a Younger Land is a fine way to rediscover our culinary roots.
The Food of a Younger Land