A Historical Portrait of American Food Culture: The Food of a Younger Land

I spotted this book on one of my colleagues bookshelves about a year and a half ago. When I would stop by his office, I would often pull the book off the shelf, read the description on the back and then lazily thumb through the pages without really looking.  Finally, about 6 months ago or so, I told him I would like to borrow the book, mainly because I assumed it was going to be a bit along the lines of some of Michael Pollan’s works.  My colleague, who had not read this book, said “Go ahead and keep it; I don’t really want it.”  Unfortunately, it has taken me those six months to get around to reading it (or finding the time to read it).

First let me say that my assumption that this book was similar to Michael Pollan’s works, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma was wrong, very wrong.  However, I was not disappointed in The Food of a Younger Land on that count.  Nor was I disappointed in it for what was written within the book itself.  I was disappointed when the book ended because I wanted so much more from the book.  But, alas, that could not be, given the circumstances surrounding the creation of the book, which I will soon explain.

A mere fifteen months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration as President of the United States, the Emergency Relief Act was passed in April 1935. And less than one month later, FDR, despite the controversy surrounding the Emergency Relief Act of 1935, signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration, the WPA. The goal of the WPA, as FDR envisioned it, was to put “blue collar laborers to work building government projects”, focusing at first on small and useful projects (as these were deemed less controversial). Many of these projects included government and public buildings, including some of the buildings that still stand on the campus of the Toledo Zoo (in Toledo, Ohio.)

In addition to putting blue collar laborers to work, however, a small and often overlooked clause in the Emergency Relief Act of 1935 also mandated that “assistance to educational and clerical persons; a nation-wide program for useful employment for artists, musicians, actors, entertainers, writers….” be provided. Thus, in the summer of 1935 Federal Project Number 1 got underway. Federal One included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theater Project, and the Federal Writers’ Project. (Subsidizing art or artistic endeavors of any kind had never been, and still isn’t, very popular with the American public, so Federal One met with much controversy and skepticism.)

During the course of its existence, the Federal Writers Project employed several well recognized regional writers as well as writers and poets who both had or would come to have some national prominence. Among these included Stetson Kennedy, Saul Bellow, Jack Conroy, Conrad Aiken, Josef Berger, John Cheever, Kenneth Rexroth, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neal Hurston. Ellison used the time he was employed with the Federal Writers’ Project to work on his novel Native Son while Hurston had already published a few novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God but the time she was employed by the FWP.

It is from the Federal Writers’ Project that the idea for and the much of the content of this book springs. The earliest major undertaking (although there were several smaller ones) of the FWP was to create a series of guidebooks, one for each state. (Eventually, one of each state, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, and several smaller regional ones were created from this project.) It is not these guidebooks, however, that are the focus of The Food of a Younger Land; instead, its focus is on one of the second major projects that the FWP strove to undertake: America Eats.

America Eats was the idea of Katherine Kellock (who was also the person behind the idea for the successful guidebooks. With America Eats Kellock hoped to undertake a “nationwide examination of what America eats. However, America Eats was not simply to be a collection of recipes. Rather, Kellock stressed that this new project, which was to produce quite the hefty end product, was to examine “American cookery and the part it has played in the national life” and to “preserve not only traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes and customs”.

Unfortunately, America Eats was never completed. As the country moved beyond the Depression and many of the writers who worked for the Federal Writers’ Project left to pursue their own writing careers or to take other jobs, the effort to complete this last project was greatly reduced. In 1943 when the WPA finally closed down, only a few boxfuls of notes, some incomplete essays, transcripts of interviews, and “thoughts” about certain regions and their foods had been collected. Not every state was represented in these pages and the pages were shipped off in their boxes to the U.S. Library of Congress, where Mark Kurlansky discovered them.

What we get in The Food of a Younger Land is a good portion of what was to be America Eats. Kurlansky did not include everything from the boxes he went through at the Library of Congress, and much of what he did include was not edited. The names of the authors who originally wrote the pieces are included (if an author was noted in the papers Kurlansky found) and Kurlansky provides a brief bio of the author. If no author was noted on the papers, then no author is credited in teh text. Since Kurlansky didn’t edit the pieces, much of the writing does truly reflect the cultural, social, and even political beliefs of the time. This reflection of the cultural and social times can be seen in the use of the original language of the pieces, some of which is not considered culturally or socially acceptable today.

What The Food of a Younger Land offers us, as readers, is a fascinating look at the role of food in American culture, from the role of Maple-Sugaring in New England to the controversy over which version of clam chowder, New England or Manhattan, is the best, to the controversy over which is the true original recipe for a mint julep. Regional and ethnic foods and traditions are covered and discussed. We see the role of the automat in New York City, Coca-Cola parties in Georgia, fish fries on the Levee in Mississippi, Washington Community Smelt Fries, cooking for threshers in Nebraska, Alabama Cane Gridings and Pullings, the menudo parties in Arizona and foot washings in Alabama. And, we also get glimpses of unusual foods, many of which we would perhaps not dream of eating, including fried beaver tail from Montana.

Such interesting glimpses of life and food are offered that you are left to wonder what it would have been like if America Eats had been completed. What regional delights did we miss out learning about from those states that are missing?

There are so many fascinating pieces in this slim, for the subject covered, 450 page book that I don’t feel like my review does it justice. It really is a fascinating read.

4 out of 5 stars

8 thoughts on “A Historical Portrait of American Food Culture: The Food of a Younger Land”

  1. you’ve got a great way of communicating with the reader, a great way of making me feel like what you have to say is just as important to me as it is to you. keep it up!

      1. Would that be Fall, when the air turns crisp?I’d read about the America Eats project but had no idea this was being pubieshld. Definitely going to pick up a copy.At last, I can beef up on NY soda-luncheonette slang.

    1. I love ATK! I totally subcsribe to Cook’s Illustrated. I am obsessed with a local vanilla made in Utah from Blue Cattle Truck. (It’s actually the kind Sweet Revenge swears by.) I just like the idea of real vanilla. But I grew up with imitation in my mom’s chocolate chip cookies. I made my own this year…going to bust it out on Thanksgiving (or sooner!)PS I’m back to cupcake blogging!

  2. Hello, very professional high level blog! thank you for sharing. Because of good writing, and I learned a lot, and I am glad to see such a beautiful thing. Sorry for my bad English. ?

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