Mom’s spaghetti sauce and ham-and-cheese sandwiches with crusts cut off. Homemade chocolate chip ice cream on the Fourth of July. Such foods trigger our memories and steer us full throttle toward the past. In"The Food of a Younger Land," Mark Kurlansky presents chronicles of food traditions and recipes amassed circa 1940, bringing us back to an America long gone, when the nation’s cuisine was still seasonal, regional and traditional.
The book’s content was originally going to be called “America Eats” when compiled for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program that also collected life histories and produced guidebooks under FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). An army of writers was instructed to fan out across the country and focus on “American cookery and the part it has played in the national life. … Emphasis should be divided between food and people.” Because the program’s primary purpose was to provide employment, job qualifications were nominal; as one writer quipped, “To work for the FWP you had to take an oath that you had no money, no job, and no property. I was eminently qualified.”
Contributors included Estella Tenbrink and Roaldus Richmond, names unmentioned in America’s literary pantheon. But Zora Neale Hurston was already steeped in the Harlem Renaissance and the author of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" when she wrote “Diddy-Wah-Diddy” for “America Eats.” And Kurlansky, author of food histories "Salt" and "Cod," first learned of “America Eats” by stumbling upon the University of Iowa Press’s publication of a contribution from Nelson Algren, written before he won a National Book Award for "The Man With the Golden Arm."
“America Eats” was unfinished when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and submissions were hastily boxed up and shipped to the Library of Congress, where they sat unculled, unedited and unpublished. Kurlansky reviewed thousands of pages, choosing “not always the best but the most interesting pieces.” The result reads like a recipe box-cum-food journal-cum-scrapbook; selections include recipes for Norwegian meatballs, an “Editorial Memorandum on Clams,” and a list of slang words used in New York’s luncheonettes. Kurlansky spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about lost food culture, the current state of American eating and his very first taco.
Q. Why did “America Eats” interest you?
A. Well, it was a fascinating idea—a circa-1940 investigation of American eating traditions, which is such an interesting period, because World War II so completely changed America. These writings offered a look at that other America, just before it changed.
Q. What kind of changes?
A. For one thing, there’s been a lot more immigration since World War II, so we’ve become a much more diverse society. There’s an article in the book by an Italian woman in Vermont. She’s writing about ravioli and explains to the reader what ravioli is. That was a different America.
It was also before there was a highway system, before fast food and before freezers really worked. I wasn’t around in 1940—I was born in ’48—but when I was young, a lot of the old America was still around. I remember an America without highways, when you drove from town to town and you ate different things in different places. You couldn’t get Mexican food outside of the West or the Southwest. God, I remember marveling at Mexican food when I was a kid. There was nothing like it where I came from. I ate my first taco in Pismo Beach, Calif. They called it a taco! What a funny name!
But really, the fact that highways were built and transportation got a lot better meant that people moved around a lot more, and as a consequence food moved around a lot more, so it wasn’t as regional.