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We Were What We Ate: ‘Food of a Younger Land’

foodAfter studying the menu at the Gramercy Tavern, a Manhattan restaurant featuring "New American cuisine," writer Mark Kurlansky says, "Nothing screams out '1942,' which may not be a bad thing."

There's no Mississippi molasses pie. No Montana fried beaver tail. No Long Island rabbit stew or Nebraska pig fries.

But thanks to writers such as Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston, descriptions and recipes of each are found in Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead, $27.95, on sale Thursday).

It's based on reports, forgotten for more than 60 years, from the Depression-era Federal Writers Project. Part of the New Deal, it created work for writers, including a few who became famous, such as Welty ("The Optimist's Daughter") and Hurston ("Their Eyes Were Watching God").

One of its last projects, begun in 1939, was a guidebook to local foods and eating traditions. It was to be called "America Eats," but it was abandoned in 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, when federal resources shifted from social to military spending.

One part of the project was published in 1992 by the University of Iowa Press, an essay on Midwestern foods by Nelson Algren, who wrote the 1950 best seller "The Man With a Golden Arm."

Nine years ago, Kurlansky, who has written several books on food, including "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" and "Salt," was at the Library of Congress, researching an anthology of food writing.

He stumbled upon the "American Eats" files, what he calls "a time capsule from 1942, from an America without frozen food or chain restaurants."

There were five boxes of unedited manuscripts and correspondence about topics that included "Georgia Possum and Taters" and "A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco," as well as "The Mint Julep Controversy" between the "don't-crush school" and the "do-crush school" when it came to preparing the sprigs of mint.

In six decades, the files at the library had been requested only two or three times.

Kurlansky, 60, knew what he had: "I like food too much to be a restaurant reviewer, but I have an anthropological passion for food as a trail of clues to society and history."

He spent a week reading the files, which was "like tapping into another America."

He notes that in a report from Vermont, Mari Tomasi "knew that Italian food was rare enough for her to feel the need to explain what ravioli is."

When it came to collecting recipes, few of the writers were as careful or diligent as Welty, who wrote: "Yankees are welcome to make these dishes. Follow the directions and success is assured."

Hurston wrote a short story about a mythical African-American land with great barbecue but ran into racism. Kurlansky found a memo from the project's Florida directors warning their staff that Hurston "is given to putting on airs, including the smoking of cigarettes in the presence of white people."

If "America Eats" had been finished and published in 1942, Kurlansky says, it wouldn't have been as interesting then as it is now: "Enough time had to go by."

Over a lunch of halibut in hazelnut yogurt sauce, he says food wasn't necessarily better then, "but it was local and seasonal. What you ate told you who you were, where you were and what time of season it was."


Before she became a celebrated short-story writer and novelist, Eudora Welty, who died in 2001, collected stories and recipes for the Federal Writers Project "America Eats." Here's her mint julep recipe, by way of Mrs. T.C. Billups of Columbus, Miss.:

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled.

Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water.

Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping into dissolved sugar.

Strain after stirring.

Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity.

Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold.

Put a spring of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet.

Let goblet stand until FROSTED.

Serve rapidly.

Welty adds: "Who could ask for anything more?"

From "The Food of a Younger Land"

1 Responses »

  1. I would like one of those new-fangled "tacos."