NOVEMBER 26, 2018

Cookbook Review: The Food of a Younger Land

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


Many readers of American history will recognize the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA), but as Mark Kurlansky, the prolific culinary historian, points out in the introduction to The Food of a Younger Land, (Riverhead Books 2009) not as many might remember that there was an extension of the WPA created as part of the Emergency Relief Act which called “for useful employment for artists, musicians, actors, entertainers, writers…”

The Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) portion would eventually come to commission itself to come up with big book ideas and then to execute those plans by bringing into the program a handful of not yet famous writers such as Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nelson Algren, along with a diverse variety of much lesser known, but similarly unemployed, writers.

After a surprisingly successful series of American travel guides, “the Federal Writer’s Project administrators were faced with the daunting challenge of coming up with projects to follow their first achievements…and came up with the thought about the varied food and eating traditions throughout America… and called the project America Eats.”

Kurlansky took on the unfinished America Eats project many years later as collector and editor of a vast and often undirected collection of food writing, what he called a mountain of authentic, diverse food history that offers us today a sort of birds-eye view of the food scene from “before the national highway, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional.”

The Middle West, he introduces, is “often thought of as part of the country that isn’t a part of anywhere else. But Midwesterners do have a sense of themselves and their regional identity. And though today the cuisine has been ravaged by fast food, it was a region with a very strong sense of its own food.”

Various chapters capture food of the time in a variety of styles, so that “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners,” is a sing-song poem, “Sioux and Chippewa Food” is a fascinating report made by Frances Densmore, born in Red Wing, Minnesota in 1867, and who dedicated much of her life studying and sharing her knowledge of Native American music and food. “Cooking for the Threshers in Nebraska” by Estella Tenbrink, is a fine piece of memoir-inspired fiction.

Wisconsin received two entries in the collection, “Wisconsin Sour Dough Pancakes,” an important staple of the state’s early lumber culture and “Wisconsin and Minnesota Lutefisk,” a topic that has been chronicled before but that comes to life with the true but tongue in cheek perspective of that time that “Nobody likes Lutefisk at first,” but those who do eventually “drive home happily expansive both in body and soul.”