Mark Kurlansky, author of the bestseller "Salt: A World History," has a way of blending food with history and making it all palatable to a mainstream audience. Now comes his new book, "The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food -- Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal, Regional and Traditional -- From the Lost WPA Files," where he provides fodder for foodies much like Nicholas Basbanes does for bibliophiles.
The story of how this book came about is no less fascinating than the story it tells of food before chain restaurants. Much of the credit goes to Kurlansky -- he's an apt editor and has an eye for tidbits of information that readers will find compelling. He has even done the linocut illustrations himself.
The book started out as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) endeavor back in the 1930s. It created the Federal Writers Project, meant to keep writers off the dole by giving them, in effect, busywork. The first project was a series of regional guidebooks, which were mostly well-received. When this ran dry, the manager of the project, Katherine Kellock, conceived of a tome called "America Eats." She wanted to give a picture of the regional variations of American cuisine, many of which came to light while writing the guidebooks.
The material was gathered, but alas, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, the project was abandoned for more necessary things like military manuals. The submitted items languished in the Library of Congress until Kurlansky came upon them.
The book is divided into five regional sections (The Northeast Eats, The South Eats ...). Many of the stories in these sections talk of long-held regional traditions. The idea was to give a representative picture of what was unique about the cuisine of each area. There is a story about the contributions New York City hotels made to gourmet food, a decidedly authentic recipe for Seafood Gumbo, and much discussion of clam bakes and chowders (running to about 12 pages).
The stories tell of widely varied populations, some that are so assimilated that you may not know they ever existed, such as the Basques of South Idaho (complete with holiday menu), and others that still hold sway. Most important for Minnesotans, there is a story on lutefisk dinners, a recipe for lefse and a story on booya (with a recipe for 60 gallons). There are recipes galore throughout the book, though we modern cooks may have some trouble obtaining some of the ingredients.
You have to keep in mind as you read these that they were written during the late 1930s. You'll see "Depression Cake" from Oregon and "A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco" to remind you. It is certainly interesting to note how the writers themselves talked of the changes in these traditions at that time ("Cooking for the Threshers" in Nebraska is a great example of this). Anyone interested in history, Americana, cooking, food and culture will eat this up.
Linda White is a writer and editor living in St. Paul.