Saturday, December 06, 2014

"The Food of a Younger Land," edited by Mark Kurlansky

Whether you cook or just bring your smile and enjoy the eats, holiday meals are a time when families typically share food traditions. Even a deliberate decision to try something new probably involves an excursion into the food traditions of another place or time. As a nation of immigrants, the U.S. has many food cultures brought from former homes and adapted for availability of ingredients. Other recipes and menus arose in place, as Native Americans and immigrant peoples learned to take advantage of local resources.

"The Food of a Younger Land," edited by Mark Kurlansky, is a collection of material compiled for the never-published "America Eats" project undertaken by the Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). "Food of a Younger Land" starts with a history of the Writers' Project and its accomplishments, as well as providing contextual commentary on the included materials from what remains of the original "America Eats."

The WPA, established during the great depression of the 1930s, was charged with creating productive jobs for unemployed Americans in all kinds of fields ranging from construction to fine arts. San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, for example, was a WPA project.

Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point in the fog
The Golden Gate Bridge vanishes into the fog

The Writers' Project put unemployed writers to work on documentary-type projects such as a series of guidebooks on various regions of America. Fifty local Writers' Project centers operated in 48 states. All sorts of writers were accepted to the program, from published novelists and poets to technical writers and anyone with sufficient literacy -- as long as they had no job, no money, and no property. Even now, many will recognize the names of writers including Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, and Studs Terkel -- all of whom worked with some aspect of the writers project.

The "America Eats" collection was one of the last undertaken by the Writers Project. It was intended to be a record of food and eating traditions in different parts of America -- complete with recipes and discussion of "controversial" differences between competing versions of iconic dishes (like clam chowder). Regional offices were given their assignments with a deadline for providing copy to the editor by the end of Thanksgiving week, 1941.

Reminders were sent out on December 3rd, but on December 7th the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything changed. The Washington DC office of the Writers' Projected instructed all groups to send in whatever they had, no matter how incomplete, in anticipation of disbanding for reassignments to the war effort. By May of 1942, the Writers' Project had become the "Writers' Unit of the War Services subdivision of the WPA." Writers were tasked with producing documents such as Sevicemen's Recreational Guides and books on military history.

"America Eats" materials sent in by the various regions -- mostly rough notes -- were turned over to the Library of Congress. There they sat -- without editing or indexing, much less publishing -- until rediscovered by the current editor.

The result is more of a reference than the sort of book one sits down and reads cover-to-cover. Nonetheless, the history of the Writers' Project and those involved with it is fascinating. The included essays and snippets from the regions are, as intended, a snapshot of pre-WWII American cooking and eating -- as well as writing styles. Food traditions covered include "Literary Teas" in New York City, Lutefisk in Minnesota, tacos in Los Angeles, Sioux and Chippewa foods and their preparations, African American traditions, and much more.

I would recommend "The Food of a Younger Land" to those interested in history, particularly domestic history. It would also be a handy reference for writers of fiction or nonfiction seeking details and voices from the time period covered, as well as those interested in writers from the period. In particular, a number of African American writers of the period participated in the Writers Project, although it is not always clear which writer wrote a specific piece.

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