Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up on a blend of midwestern and Texan food (my parents come from opposite parts of the country) and as much junk food as I could sneak past my mom. (Sorry, mom.) I ate casseroles, Tex-Mex (Mexican food as interpreted by Texans), what my dad called “southern gourmet” dishes like biscuits and gravy, and lots of Italian dishes that my mom had taught herself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become fascinated by food history. Why do we eat what we eat? How old is this recipe that my mother and her mother make? Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land answered some of my long-standing questions, as well as introducing me to American cuisine prior to World War II and the interstate highway system.
Kurlansky rediscovered the notes and draft essays, recipes, and anecdotes for what was supposed to be a book called America Eats at the Library of Congress. America Eats was the brainchild of Katherine Kellock, who envisioned a massive volume that would reveal the everyday diets and regional specialties of the United States. The timing didn’t work out. By the late 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was on its last legs. The Project—which employed thousands of writers across the nation during the Great Depression—dissolved completely during World War II. Kellock sent out assignments to every state’s project and a few writers turned in content for America Eats, but the book was never completed and most of the unedited manuscripts were stored at the Library of Congress waiting for someone like Kurlansky to make sense of them.
Because the manuscripts were unedited, the quality of The Food of a Younger Land is uneven. Some of the pieces included are no more than scraps of recipes collected by FWP folklorists. Others shine, however. My favorite pieces covered Wisconsin lutefisk church suppers, a history of dishes that originated in New York, and hilarious attempts to explain things like ravioli and tortillas (included a helpful note on pronunciation) to readers who might never have encountered these dishes. There is a lot of casual racism that was common in the 1930s and 40s that wouldn’t be allowed past an editor these days. The sections that discuss Native American food are particularly condescending; the sections about African American food in the south are full of racist stereotypes. Kurlansky warned about this in his introduction, but I wasn’t prepared.
Even though America Eats was never edited, one theme did emerge. The distance between farm and fork before the interstate highway became to homogenize American culture used to be a lot shorter. In the midwestern section there are descriptions of enormous meals made from ingredients grown just outside the cook’s door. In the northeastern section, cooks and eaters dig and cook clams in gigantic bakes all in an afternoon. The entire southern section is full of barbecues of livestock raised and killed within a mile of where it would be eaten. I freely admit that I have no idea where my food comes from and it makes me a little sad that my generation (with a few exceptions) has so little connection with where food comes from. (Another, smaller theme that came out was that American men loved eating what are variously called calf or lamb fries, prairie oysters, or Rocky Mountain oysters. Who knew?)
I don’t know if I’ll try any of the recipes in The Food of a Younger Land, though some of them sound very tasty. The writers who collected and wrote the source material often noted just how long it took to create authentic baked beans or a proper barbecue. Also, it’s near impossible to get some of the ingredients these days and I just don’t have time to hunt my own opossum or squirrel. Ah, well, I suppose that feeling a bit of regret about the foods I’ll never taste* is one of the downsides of reading food histories.
* Except for lutefisk. I feel no regret whatsoever at never eating this dish. It sounds appalling and I have it on good authority that it doesn’t actually taste like much anyway.