The Food of a Younger Land

Posted by Cliff Kuang

Mark Kurlansky's new book revives an abandoned WPA writers project.

Food journalism almost always focuses on the ideal instead of the everyday-it tells us more about our dreams than about the lives we live. One exception is the new book by Mark Kurlansky, who's best known for Salt and Cod, books that traced how two food commodities came to shape the world. The Food of a Younger Land gathers dispatches collected across America in the 1940's by a forgotten Works Progress Administration writers project. Ultimately, the WPA never completed the book as it had intended. But Kurlansky found many of the original field reports in the Library of Congress, and these make up the new book's nearly 200 entries.Each entry offers a portrait of American custom and American food, before highways, modern agribusiness, or fast food. What people ate was seasonal and, above all, cultural-the traditions from one state to the next varied wildly, and reveal undiluted customs that are all but gone now. So, for example, you've got Choctaw, Sioux, and Chippewa foods; Nebraska pig fries; Florida hush puppies; Georgia possum and taters; and "Washington Wildcat Parties," whose signature draw was fresh cougar meat, which apparently tasted "a little like veal" with a "stronger odor."Mark Kurlansky, calling from the road during his book tour, spoke to GOOD about the book.GOOD: How do you think our attitudes towards food differed from those in 1940?MARK KURLANSKY: People were much more attached to the land, and to the place they came from. Life was much more about living in seasons and living in nature and local culture. It was much more rooted in traditions and families, and homes were much more about food than they are today. And there was a very distinct culture in almost every part of the country. In fact, many of things that you see in the book, which were taken as commonplace, are now almost gone. It makes you realize how much we've lost in the last 70 years.G: Such as?MK: All up and down the coasts you had salmon and cod. Further in you had flying squirrels and old-growth Appalachian forests and maple trees that people tapped every winter. There was abalone in San Francisco. There's even a recipe for mountain lions, which were scare even then. Maybe because of that recipe. I guess we don't really eat many carnivores. And the recipe for beaver tail of course poses the question, What's happened to the rest of the beaver? Today, I doubt they have Coca-Cola parties in Georgia, like the one in the book.G: How did the original project come about?MK: A charismatic Democrat replaced an unpopular Republican at the outset of a grave economic crisis and decided that there needed to be an economic stimulus that Republicans violently opposed. But what Roosevelt did, which I don't think you could pass now, was [draft and implement] a bill that created work but didn't specify the projects. The WPA was by executive order. It wasn't approved by Congress, and I doubt that it would have been-the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated the WPA for ties to Communism because so many of the writers were Communists at one time. It was frequently accused of being a scam and a boondoggle. And, in fact, it hired a lot of people that couldn't write. But it also hired Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison.G: How did you find and edit these pieces?MK: Most of them were in boxes in the Library of Congress where they were dumped when the WPA was collapsing. But there are probably some things around that I didn't find. For example, I found a letter returning a bunch of entries to an archive in Maine, which burned down in the 1950s. As far as editing, the first thing I did was eliminate about half [of the pieces] because they were poorly written and weren't interesting. Most of these manuscripts weren't going to be published. But some people tried to write interesting pieces. Sometimes I did deliberately include some pieces with racist overtones. I eliminated many, but I didn't want to cut that out because it's a part of what's there.G: Do you think all of these food traditions are really gone? MK: For a lot of the food that was readily available in 1940, you'd probably have to do detective work to find it, but it is probably still around. Someone, somewhere, does it. You'd be surprised. If I were to take anything and say "This doesn't exist anymore," someone would call and say her sister does it.Photo by Sylvia Plachy