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Excerpt From Mark Kurlansky's 'The Food of a Younger Land'

Here are two selections from "The Food of a Younger Land: 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—from the lost WPA files,"edited by Mark Kurlansky.

The first selection, submitted to the WPA's "America Eats" program by an unknown writer named Hans Christensen, documents culinary habits in the Cornhusker State in verse.

The second piece came from Jerry Felsheim, a New York City writer of children’s books and plays, notably "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," with Irving Drutman.

Nebraskans Eat the Wieners
by Hans Christensen

Nebraskans eat the wieners,

And are they considered swell?

They are eaten by the millions,

That is one way you can tell.

Some fry them in a skillet,

Others boil them deep in kraut,

But the man who knows his wieners,

And what it’s all about,

Is the one who builds a fire,

In the forest or a park,

Then watch them sizzle to a brown,

As the dusk turns into dark,

And as the center of attraction,

Here are solid facts we own.

For a tasty outdoor morsel

The wiener’s in a class alone.

This is true in town or city,

That when folks go out to play,

Ol’ Mr. Weiner goes along,

And is the hero of the day.

Then while he’s turning juicy

Folks sing songs of long ago.

Like Auld Land Syne and Annie Laurie

Moonlight Bay and Old Black Joe.

We believe that if Napoleon

In retreating from the cold

Could have had Nebraska hot dogs

He would have made it to the fold.


New York Literary Tea
by Jerry Felsheim

As a social institution, the Literary Tea has undergone profound changes in recent years. Originally identified with women’s study clubs, it has been taken over by the smart world and transformed into a cocktail party with incidental literary trimmings. Its hours are from five to seven but, as with the cocktail party, no one ever appears before six fifteen and the host is fortunate if his last guests depart by nine. More than anything else, it has become an informal gathering place for intellectual sophisticates on their way to dinner.

Since the publishing world is concentrated in New York, literary teas reach their apex in that city. Their sponsors are usually connected with the business, a publisher trying to put over a new author; an editor celebrating the start of a magazine; or again, just a head hunter parading another celebrity. In Manhattan, literary teas are given upon the slightest provocation.

The locales of these parties vary from private apartments to special rooms at the smart night clubs and hotels. One condition is paramount, however; the place must always be jammed. Seemingly no literary tea is successful unless it is crowded enough to make an exchange of intellectual ideas an impossibility. The talk is usually limited to the latest publishing blurbs and reviews, Broadway gossip, and inside tips on how much this or that author is making. “Heavy” conversation is invariably frowned upon and chichi wit is at a premium.

Tea is a rarity at these gatherings. The conventional beverages are dry martini and Manhattan cocktails, with scotch for those who insist. In this respect, literary teas may be considered slightly more virile than their sister art shows, where tepid sherry is most often the only drink available. Food receives little attention. Usually it consists of a few uninteresting canapés passed haphazardly about, with few takers.

Literary teas are constantly in a state of flux. The uninitiate gravitates toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink. Since the general rule of conduct is to seek out those who can do one most good, magazine editors and big-name reviewers enjoy much popularity.

If the party happens to be given in honor of a new author, he is almost always completely ignored. In fact, there is a tradition among veteran literary tea-goers to put the young author in his place as soon as possible. They accomplish this by pretending vociferously not to know for whom the party is being given. The young author usually stands awkwardly in a corner, surrounded by a few dull old ladies, with his publisher frantically trying to circulate him among the “right” people.

Ephemeral as all this may be, however, the modern literary tea has its points. It enables devotees to renew old friendships and make new ones; it gives the publisher an opportunity to tip off the trade as to which writer he is going to push; it allows the ambitious young author to make contacts with editors; and it gives a great many people entertainment, not to mention free drinks, in the hours before dinner.

Reprinted from "The Food of a Younger Land: 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—from the lost WPA files," edited by Mark Kurlansky by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2009 by Mark Kurlansky