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The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food---before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When ... and Traditional---from the Lost WPA FilesMP3 CD– Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged
Don't expect any real recipes here. This is mostly history, and about a drab time as well. I heard the interview with the author on the radio and that was about all that you needed to know. I suppose if you live in one of the few-remaining bastions of American "traditional" food (watered down versions of the food of other lands, basically), then you might like this book. Otherwise, it's just an addition to your dust-collecting volumes.
The Federal Writers Project (FWP) put hundreds of writers to work during the Great Depression. The FWP's major project, a series of travel guides of the states, was a beautifully written work by established writers as well as new writers. It was a project whose time had come and the guides were a big hit with Americans who were looking for any excuse to hit the road.
The guides were completed in 1938, but still there was no end in sight to the Depression. The FWP started several new projects, including one called America Eats!, a guide to regional recipes and social traditions involving food. The project got off to a slow start and then after Pearl Harbor, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before funds would be diverted to the military. The unfinished project was sent to the Library of Congress for storage.
Author Mark Kurlansky dug through those old papers, and although the project was incomplete, he found enough to compile a decent collection of food writing from circa 1938.
In keeping with the plan of the America Eats! project, Kurlansky has arranged the book according to region. He introduces the chapters and provides some helpful explanations along the way, but most of the book is written by other people some sixty years ago.
Here's the problem. Much of the writing is indifferent, almost bored. Kurlansky's very interesting introduction explains how the project came about and how money and focus dwindled after Pearl Harbor. It seems as if there may never have been any great enthusiasm for the America Eats! project. The American Guides travel writing project was inspired and inspiring. The writers put everything they had into it, and it shows. The series was wonderful, as guides, or simply as good writing. But food writing was still something relegated to the "women's page" of the newspaper. Many of the writers appeared to think that writing about food and the customs surrounding regional dishes was beneath them. The editor of the America Eats! project, anticipating the writers' reluctance to write about such a frivolous topic, counseled that the writing should be "light but not tea shoppe, masculine not feminine."
Much of the text is simply recipes, or lists of ingredients. Kurlansky's introduction is easily the best part of the book. While I have no doubt that going through those old boxes in the Library of Congress was fascinating, maybe that's where those old typewritten and carbon-copied manuscripts should have remained. Perhaps Patricia Willard had the right idea with her recent book America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA - the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food. She also researched the Library of Congress archives and then hit the road to find out if truly regional foods still exist. The result is an entertaining comparison of Depression era American food customs and what remains of them seventy years later.
62 of 67 people found the following review helpful
Many years ago I remember seeing a movie about some WWII soldiers assigned to a bomber plane (I think it was "Memphis Belle"). As they're approaching the limit of bombing runs when they'll be discharged they're discussing what they'll do when they get home. One says he's going to open a chain of restaurants across the country and each will have the same name, same menu, and same food. Another says it's a dumb idea, because no one will want to eat the same food they can get at home. He replies, somewhat sheepishly, "sure they will, it's comforting," while everyone laughs. I always thought that was an interesting insight into the nation prior to WWII, and while most histories usually focus on a prominent person or event, they don't often give a very good idea of what it was like for regular people who lived those times. That's one thing that sets this book apart.
During the Great Depression FDR came up with a number of "make-work" projects to keep people employed (as opposed to simply giving welfare). Projects such as the WPA and the CCC gave people the satisfaction of *earning* a living while hopefully providing a service to the community (every time I visit a National Park and see the buildings and trails I think of the CCC - which is how my grandparents met, incidentally). The usefulness and value of these projects could be debated endlessly, but one in particular was called "America Eats" and kept some writers from starving. They were sent out around America to report on the various foods and eating customs that existed in this broad and diverse land. This was in the days before interstate freeways, restaurant chains, refrigerator-freezers, and the low-quality fast food we all live on. Different regions still had very distinct foods and customs, and there wasn't as much uniformity in what we eat across the nation. The war ended this project before it was completed but Mark Kurlansky has dipped into those old archived reports to give us a look at what mealtimes were like and what regular people ate.
In addition to discussing the differences between clam chowder in New York and Boston, he also includes a number of recipes, many of which are in the same summary form they were submitted to the main office prior to any editing or "writing." Where the writer was identifiable he gives a short history on him or her. We recently visited New Mexico and it was interesting to read the account of the meals that were eaten in the field by farmers and their families. One chapter I found especially amusing was called "A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco" which gave all the ways a tortilla could be used, such as burritos, taquitos, chalupas, etc. But the book is filled with interesting tidbits and notes - everything from Choctaw indian foods to slang used in New York luncheonettes - and whether you read it cover to cover or simply pick through it, I think it will certainly be entertaining.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Wonderful culinary and cultural history of 20th Century America28 Jun. 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
When I first ordered this book I was under the impression that it was going to be about food from an earlier time in American history...like from the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead it centers on President Roosevelt's WPA program of the 1930's. I was initially disappointed. I was initially wrong. It's actually a very good book, giving wonderful historical information about America's food, region by region. Of course, being a born and bread midwesterner, that was the first section I delved into and found a fine mix of 'cuisines' from this section of the U.S. - some familiar and some not - with history thrown in to boot. But, the Kentucky Eggnog listed in the southern region looked interesting as well. And then there is the...well, you get the picture - - - Although there are a number of recipes interspersed throughout, this is not a cookbook. It a pleasurable informational social history book of an era that many of our parents and grandparents can still remember. The best part about this book is that it is chock-full of the type of historical information that one rarely thinks about - my favorite history...social history. FOOD history. As I mentioned, however, the title can easily throw one off. It should have a more accurate title which, I believe, might be a benefit to this book, as "The Food of a Younger Land" does have a hint of an even earlier time in our nation's history than the era in which the author writes. All 'n' all, this is a fine collection of early 20th century history that most have probably never given a second thought. Good stuff.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Kindle readers: take note!2 Jan. 2010
- Published on Amazon.com
If you are buying this for your Kindle, make sure you go to the one on the bottom of the list, or you won't get the full edition. They are being sold in sections on here and it is deceiving. The first section, The South Eats, is all you will get if you order the top. Yes, the title says "The South Eats" when you open it, but the print editions are not sold in sections, only as one book, so selling it off in sections is a bit on the deceptive side I would say.