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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 the Nation's Food Was Seasonal Hardcover – May 14, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A genuine culinary and historical keepsake: in the late 1930s the WPA farmed out a writing project with the ambition of other New Deal programs: an encyclopedia of American food and food traditions from coast-to-coast similar to the federal travel guides. After Pearl Harbor, the war effort halted the project for good; the book was never published, and the files were archived in the Library of Congress. Food historian Kurlansky (Cod; The Big Oyster) brought the unassembled materials to light and created this version of the guide that never was. In his abridged yet remarkable version, he presents what some of the thousands of writers (among them Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren) found: America, its food, its people and its culture, at the precise moment when modernism and progress were kicking into gear. Adhering to the administrators' original organization, the book divides regionally; within each section are entries as specific as A California Grunion Fry, and as general and historical as the one on Sioux and Chippewa Food. Though we've become a fast-food nation, this extraordinary collection—at once history, anthropology, cookbook, almanac and family album—provides a vivid and revitalizing sense of the rural and regional characteristics and distinctions that we've lost and can find again here. (May 14)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Just what we need in hard times, recipes for booya, mullet salad, Georgia possum and taters, kush, and Montana fried beaver tail. Kurlansky, the author of best-selling books about salt, cod, and oysters, discovered these gems in a two-foot-high stack of the “raw, unedited manuscripts” for an inspired but never completed WPA endeavor titled America Eats. As he explains in his invigorating introduction, the Federal Writers’ Project sent starving writers of all stripes (Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and other who qualified just because they could type) across the country to gather information about “American cookery and the part it has played in national life.” The results are vivid and playful dispatches from pre-interstate, pre-fast-food America, when food was local and cuisine regional. Kurlansky selected zesty writings, factual and imaginative, describing barbecues, fries, and feasts; profiling families; and defining New York City luncheonette slang (“blind ’em” means two eggs fried on both sides). Fun, illuminating, and provocative, this historic reclamation appears while we’re in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the one Franklin D. Roosevelt fought with his job-creating stimulus package and while we’re grappling with a plague of unsafe food and environmental woes associated with industrial agriculture. But don’t despair. Whip up Ethel’s Depression Cake, and throw a bailout party. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; First Edition edition (May 14, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594488657
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594488658
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #365,603 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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