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Lost Customs and Recipes From a Time When All Eating Was Local

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and submissions were hastily boxed up and shipped to the Library of Congress, where they sat unculled, unedited and unpublished.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.

Q. Are there any food traditions that you grew up with that you don’t see anymore?

A. I’m from New England, and actually New England, along with the South, is one of the better places for preserving regional traditions. There is a very strong sense of regional food—clam chowder and Indian pudding and fried clams. Some things have pretty much vanished; there are some New England traditions in the book that I had never heard of.

Q. Like what?

A. May breakfasts. They were huge fundraising breakfasts cooked in May by women in church parishes. I included two articles about May breakfasts, one from Connecticut and one from Rhode Island. It’s a tradition that I never heard of. A lot of those types of traditional social gatherings have disappeared.

Q. Other examples include communal pancake breakfasts and clam bakes. “Coca-Cola Parties in Georgia,” which described young women getting together to gossip and drink Coca-Cola, was a great piece.

A. I don’t know Georgia well, but I can’t imagine that they still have Coca-Cola Parties. But one of the things that makes all this so interesting is the nature of the WPA and Katherine Kellock, who was the real brains behind the Federal Writers’ Project. When she conceived of “America Eats,” she wanted to emphasize those social aspects of food, which is why there is so much about those kinds of gatherings.

Q. Tell me more about her.

A. Kellock was a really interesting woman. She was a writer who took a pay cut to work for the Federal Writers’ Project, because she had an idea that she loved: guidebooks about America. There weren’t any at the time. So the FWP produced guidebooks for almost all the states, as well as big cities and a few towns. The guidebooks were quite successful, which surprised a lot of people. Once the guidebooks were finished, they needed a new project, and Kellock came up with “America Eats.” I think it was coming off of the guidebooks that made her so interested in the social role of food, the people involved and the controversies in different places.

Q. Do any of the food controversies in “America Eats” still endure?

A. Oh yeah. In New England, they’re still arguing over what a good clam chowder is and what a bad clam chowder is. Putting tomatoes in clam chowder is strictly forbidden according to some New Englanders. In the South, they still argue about the proper way to make a mint julep; the enduring question is whether or not you should crush the mint. Those controversies are still around, just as Southerners still drink mint juleps. Somebody gave me one at 10 o’clock in the morning before giving a reading in New Orleans.

Q. We might be better off without some of the foods written about in “America Eats.” Is anyone still eating Brunswick stew, which is made with squirrel meat?

A. People aren’t eating squirrel as much. The squirrels in original Brunswick stews were flying squirrels from the Appalachians, and they’ve become endangered because they only live in old-growth forests, which aren’t around as much.

That also struck me, how much of the food that was plentiful and commonplace then isn’t now. Not only flying squirrels, but a lot of fish—wild Atlantic salmon is almost gone. Northeasterners mainly eat farmed salmon. Cod is harder to come by. There are fewer maple trees, for a variety of reasons including global warming. So a lot of things are disappearing for environmental reasons, and it’s only been about 70 years. It’s kind of scary to think about.

Q. You note that food writers tend not to write about how people really eat, but instead focus on food trends. What would you like to read more of in food writing?

A. What isn’t done very much is looking at what people eat in their homes, and that’s really important. That’s how you find out about the relationship of food to a society. Do Manhattanites cook at all anymore? What does my wife cook when I’m out of town? I don’t even know that, because I usually do all the cooking! What do people have for Sunday dinners? For get-togethers? You know, modern food ways.

Q. Is the current movement toward eating organically, eating locally, a step toward reestablishing regional cuisine?

A. Well, there is a movement to go back to regional cuisine. But in the Northeast, for example, if you just want to live off of local products, you’d better learn the art of canning because there’s no fresh produce between November and April.

I like the fact that we can now get fresh food all year round, but I also miss the sense of seasons. Some things start showing up, and you say, “Oh yeah, it’s getting to be May.”

But also it’s important to keep in mind that eating locally is an optional thing now. Back then it wasn’t optional; it was the only food available. Now people are trying to use more local products, which isn’t a bad thing. But the current trend toward regionalism is kind of artificial—it’s an intellectual thing that people have chosen, and it doesn’t reflect the realities of economics or agriculture. You can do it if you want to, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I suspect people do a little of both. If you want asparagus for dinner but no asparagus is in season, go out to a grocery and there you have it: It’s on your menu!

Krista Walton is an assistant editor of Preservation magazine.