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Book Review 234: The Food of a Younger Land

May 12, 2012 - Harry Eagar
THE FOOD OF A YOUNGER LAND, by Mark Kurlansky. 397 pages, illustrated with woodcuts by the author. Riverhead, $27.95

I enjoyed Mark Kurlansky's books about “Cod” and “Salt,” but they were not complete enough. When you read a book about fish, you want to know all about that fish.

“The Food of a Younger Land” also is incomplete, but this time Kurlansky cannot be faulted.

He discovered five boxes of unedited submissions for the Federal Writers Projects “America Eats” guides, which were intended to record regional foodways at a time when it was obvious that they were being erased.

World War II interrupted. Kurlansky says it is fortunate, in a way, that the unedited pieces remain, because they contain relics not only of diet and custom but of attitudes, some no longer acceptable.

But no less real for all of that.

In light of the current silly furor about “pink slime” (meat trimmings treated with ammonia), it is amusing to learn (or, in my case, relearn) that in the '30s, soda fountains sold, along with cherry Cokes and vanilla Cokes, ammonia Cokes.

Curiously absent from these memoirs – which take the form of recipes, short paragraphs, poems, short stories, pioneer memoirs and some rather arch attempts at humor – is cheese. We are and were a nation of cheese-eaters, but neither the Wisconsin nor the Vermont sections have much to say about it.

On the other hand, nearly every section had something about journey cakes and other cornmeal breads. It's doubtful whether, even as long ago as 1940, many Americans had eaten an ash cake or a hoe cake, and today almost no one has.

Regionalisms were still pronounced, but by 1940 nationally marketed foods had been around for 75 years or more. Many's the recipe here that calls for store-bought ketchup.

A big gap is the absence of any mention of a blue plate special, although a writer from Portland appears to be referring to a rather upscale version of it that she calls a “merchant's plate.” At 65 cents, it was far more expensive than the lunch the typical city worker sat down to, even if the menu was about the same.

Kurlansky made a selection. Perhaps an essay on the blue plate special is still in one of the boxes.

“The Food of a Younger Land” leaves us wanting more.


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