I recently finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s book The Food of a Younger Land and could not help but be amazed how much the food in the United States has changed in 80 years. All who attended school in the United States were taught about the massive federal government efforts in the 1930′s to create stability and economic momentum during the Great Depression. Federal programs such as the CCC and the WPA. A lesser known program of the New Deal was the FWP (Federal Writers Program). After the successful completion of the first project of the FWP, which culminated in the publication of guidebooks for the different portions of the United States, the next endeavor was titled: America Eats. The project was never completed for WWII descended upon the United States and the unfinished and incomplete manuscripts were filed away.
The author came upon this stack of manuscripts and with minimal editing, weaving in introductions, anecdotes supporting information published a book that provides us with a glimpse into the foods, thoughts, recipes and cultural perspectives of our nation 10 – 20 years before highways crossed our nation, most homes had a refrigerator and there was a fast food / restaurant chain in even the smallest of towns.
There were several things about the books that I found fascinating and interesting. It is important to remember when reading the book, that the majority of Americans still lived in small towns and rural settings. Suburbia did not exist as we know it today until after WWII.
A broad generalization of what Americans ate 80 years ago could be summarized by saying that corn meal, pork, pork fat, beans, molasses, salt, butter, black pepper, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, pickled vegetables and canned tomatoes represented a significant majority of the ingredients consumed. The preparation and use of corn meal was widespread. I truly did not realize how prevalent corn meal was used in every day cooking.
The preparation and use of stews for many meals was widespread. It makes sense for a stew provides a nourishing meal that can be prepared well in advance of the time to eat. Inherently I knew that stews are an practical means for extending a limited amount of food to the greatest number of people, but to read how prevalent stews were a part of every day cooking was enlightening.
Beef, Pork, Chicken, Fish, Shellfish, Rabbit and wild game (much more prevalent then today) were all of part of the American diet, but not as prevalent and not in the context in which we enjoy our protein today. It was apparent that the total number of cuts of beef that we enjoy today although may have existed 80 years ago, were much more localized in relation to the meat packing plants and where the railroad system operated. Fish and Seafood was readily eaten along the coasts and waterways, but it was eaten soon after being caught for there were no real means to keep the product from spoiling without refrigeration.
The author did not edit the wording, phrases or syntax used in the manuscripts. It was interesting, disturbing, enlightening and above all else educational to read the words and thoughts of authors employed by the WPA in the 1930′s as they described the diverse people, cultures and regions of the United States.
The book was worthy of the read and I learned facts about the United States that I did not know. It was interesting to learn of evolution of the hush puppy, the basis for the oyster roasts that I have participated in the South, the debates on clam chowder or mint juleps and how food was the means which brought people together in the community to socialize. There are a few recipes that I am going to try and recreate. I think that the hardest thing will be to initially follow the recipe and not add more flavors, spices and herbs.
The Food of a Younger Land is not the first book that Mark Kurlansky has written about food. He has also authored Salt: A World History, which I found to be a very interesting book on the history of salt and worthy of rereading, in addition to books about Cod and Oysters.