Oh, how they ate!
Long ago, up to just after WWII, the United States was a land of regions. New England was separate and distinct from the South, for example, and the Plains States very different than those two. Culture and cuisine were influenced by local likes and dislikes, mores and folkways. Likewise, refrigerated railway cars and to a far lesser extent weren't nearly as widely used today, so many of the fruits and vegetables we take for granted in grocery stores anywhere in the country today simply weren't as widely available back then.
In short, there was a culinary America before McDonald's and what people ate and why they ate it varied widely across our great land.
During the 1930s, the federal government struggled to put people to work during the Great Depression. One of the make-work outfits was the Federal Writer's Project, called by poet W. H. Auden "one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state". Unemployed writers were hired to write.
Mark Kurlansky, who has written utterly enthralling histories of salt and the cod fish, went through the archives of the FWP project on what America ate ("America Eats"). It was the successor to the highly successful series of FWP guidebooks to the various regions of the United States. Kurlansky provides a thorough and informative history of the FWP as an introduction to the book. Some of the best known writers in America were on the government payroll during those dark days.
"America Eats" was never completed. WWII put everyone to work and budgets for the FWP disappeared.
Kurlansky has created an anthology of many of the articles from "America Eats". The quality of the writing goes from dreadful to superb. Many of the articles include recipes, some of which are mouth-watering, while not a few make you want to hold your nose or worse. The differences between the regions is grandly apparent. I particularly enjoyed the story of how "hush puppies" came to be and how they got their name. (I also became ravenously hungry for the best hush puppies I've ever eaten, in a small town in Minnesota.)
Some of the articles, particularly those from the South, reveal how ingrained racial biases were, with language that would never be allowed to see the light of day in a government sponsored project today.
Kurlansky writes an introduction to each region's articles. The book is culinary history, but also cultural history as well, of a land before nationwide restaurant chains, thousands of frozen and canned food items and a concern with sodium and carbs. The differences in our society, the massive class of factory workers in the Northeast, the agrarian society of the South, the robust farmers and laborers of the Midwest are all separated by rich detail.
This is a book for browsing. With several dozen articles divided into five sections, this is a wonderful book for just opening to a page and reading. Make sure you don't do it when you're hungry, though: many of the recipes will leave you on the verge of making gluttony a life goal. The great tragedy is that nearly all this great, carefree cooking and eating has disappeared from our land.