Beth Jacks Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 1, 2009

Book offers time-capsule food view

There aren’t many perks connected to writing a weekly newspaper column – that nagging deadline comes around fast, week after week. One small bonus I really enjoy, however, is the occasional free book.

Every now and then, publishers send freebies with requests that perhaps I might say a kind word or two to let folks know they’d do well to go to their nearest bookstore to pick up a copy.

Sometimes I can’t give a thumbs up on these complimentary books; today I can. In fact, today I’m telling all serious readers, writers, historians, sociologists, cooks and food lovers: “This one’s for you!”

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Authored by award-winning writer Mark Kurlansky, the book is titled THE FOOD OF A YOUNGER LAND. According to the book jacket it 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.”

What inspired Kurlansky to research an unusual topic like this?

Following the great depression of the 1930s, our U. S. government created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to find work for millions of unemployed Americans, including writers. One of these WPA Federal Writers’ Projects, “AMERICA EATS,” was designed to be a comprehensive study of the eating habits and food traditions throughout the different regions of our country. Abandoned in the early 1940s because of World War II, the project was never completed. Most of the stories by celebrated writers including Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren ended up in dusty files (along with those of less well-known writers). Kurlansky discovered the files while researching an earlier book.

In a Q/A document sent by the publisher, Riverhead Books of the New York Penguin group, Kurlansky explains that he decided a book on “1940 America frozen in time would be an amazing thing because after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which ended the project, America completely changed forever. It became a country with more immigration, less social spending, more military, faster transportation, greater affluence, less agriculture, more industry, and weaker family and community ties – all of which is seen in the food.”

The Food of a Younger Land is a fascinating historical study of American eating habits prior to jiffy, packaged, instant foods. And not only are readers treated to interesting stories about people and places, we’re also given page after page of recipes.

My favorite recipes from the different regions (not dishes I’ll likely cook, I admit, but dishes I enjoyed learning about) were the following:

Northeast – Pickled Butternuts, Clam Chowder, Waldorf Salad, Hot Buttered Rum

South – Jellied Apples, Poke Salad, Okra Gumbo, Lye Hominy, Molasses Pie, Pear Wine

Middle West – Sour-dough Pancakes, Sioux and Chippewa food, Persimmon Pudding

Far West – Salmon Barbecue, Fried Beaver Tail, Wild Duck, Depression Cake

Southwest – Grunion Fry, Eggs and Onions, Texas Chuckwagon, Kush, Prairie Oysters

Kurlansky says survival is a theme that has run through several of his books. Is that theme present in this book?

He answers that question with words I found meaningful, saying: “Yes, this book too is very much about survival, about what survives from our culture and our natural bounty. It shows what we have kept and what we have lost. Some of this is troubling. While we have in some ways gained from a gastronomic point of view, culturally we seem diminished.”

Want a book that makes you think? That reflects upon the cultural history of the 1930s and 1940s in a unique way? That inspires us to celebrate more frequently our regional specialties? This is the one.

The Food of a Younger Land will be released in May. Call your bookstore to reserve a copy . . . and let me know what you think.

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