Book review: The Food of a Younger Land

by Jeff Hake

For his latest work, The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky (author of Cod, Salt, and Nonviolence) has delved into the unpublished past of the United States. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was an agency of the Works Progress Administration, the massive government program established during the Great Depression for the purpose of putting millions of unemployed Americans to work. At times employing over 4,000 writers, the FWP is most famously responsible for the American Guide Series. However, Kurlanksy reveals FWP’s more unlikely endeavor: “America Eats”. “It was to be a book on eating traditions and foods in the various parts of the United States,” he writes, “show[ing] varying ethnic traditions as well as the regional and local customs.” Kurlansky goes on to describe the intention of the book’s executors, as well as the project’s complex blend of personalities, politics, and setbacks that ultimately resulted in its dissolution into the march of history.

Nevertheless, progress was made on the writing of ”America Eats” before the project dissolved, and the documents themselves never disappeared. These folios, transcripts, and odd fragments sent from around the country to the Washington office of the FWP, while never published, lingered on in obscurity in “five boxes filled with onionskin carbon copies” amongst the shelves of the Library of Congress. In researching for another piece, Kurlansky uncovered these boxes and “accidentally stumbled back into prewar America”. In The Food of a Younger Land, he has organized, edited and compiled an idea of “America Eats”, and in essence, completed the work that the FWP could not as it became an arm of the US military in preparation for war. In addition, he brings this work into the modern era, peppering the book with details on the unspoken backgrounds and fates of the book itself, its myriad authors, and the varied content of its pages.

In this way, The Food of a Younger Land is a unique book, in which Kurlansky plays a synthesis of roles that one does not normally see in the popular press. At times, of course, he is an author, but he certainly did not write the bulk of this book and “author” does not describe his central role. Editor may better describe Kurlansky’s roles, as he undoubtedly spent months poring through these documents. He succeeds at establishing an order and remediating numerous discrepancies in unfinished documents and rough drafts while maintaining the original author’s voice. However, to accomplish this, he also needed to stretch beyond the role of editor to personal and cultural historian, reconstructing the life story of obscure authors or establishing the context of a particular story, recipe or preparation.

Out of this strange synthesis emerges a fun and colorful story about an America that did not know its food was about to undergo a forceful transformation. This was an America far more divided and defined by its food traditions than the modern era where crowds gathered in Maine for the North Whitefield game supper, South Carolina for backwoods barbeques, and Washington for smelt fries. Massachusetts scoffed at the clam chowder of Rhode Island and abhorred that of Long Island, and possum saw immense, if dwindling, popularity in the South. And the voice of the authors of “America Eats emerges”, as racial epithets are retained for posterity alongside the reminiscence that squirrel tastes “something like chicken” and a 60-gallon soup known as “Booya” calls for three pounds of salt and pepper “to taste”.

The Food of a Younger Land is a joy for foodies, history and anthropology geeks, and those who simply love a good, well-told story. At times enlightening, hilarious, dark and mouthwatering, this book has again proved Mark Kurlansky to be an engaging and versatile writer. Enjoy The Food of a Younger Land at your leisure, but when you’re finished, keep it in your kitchen for the old-fashioned recipes of hearty meals long past.

Jeff Hake is a second-year student in the Agriculture, Food and the Environment program, is the current editor-in-chief of the Friedman Sprout and is as interested in growing food as he is in eating it. He doesn’t usually eat fish, but salt and nonviolence are two of his favorite things.

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