A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to a reading and book signing by Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod, Salt, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World and many other books. Because I went to the reading, I had an opportunity to buy his newest book, The Food of a Younger Land, which isn’t being officially released until today. More about the book itself in a moment, but first a few words about Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite writers.
Kurlansky, although only a few years older than me (probably 62 or so), gives the impression of being a relict from an earlier age of newspapermen. He was a bit rumpled, curly haired and diffident in manner—until he began talking about his books when he seemed to come alive. As he tells the story, he was stationed in the Paris bureau of an American newspaper during the waning years of the Franco dictatorship in Spain. Kurlansky pitched the idea of going to Spain to do a series of articles on the resistance to Franco and his editor approved. When he got to Spain, he found out there wasn’t any resistance movement, the country was just waiting for Franco to die.
Needing to find something to write about in order to justify the cost of the trip to his editor, Kurlansky wandered up to the Basque country and fell in love with the people and green mountains (he denied the stories on the internet that his love for the Basques springs from either the fact that he was really of Basque ancestry himself or an unrequited love for a Basque women, but I like to think they’re both true). That trip led to several of his first books, including Cod and A Basque History of the World, and his gift for story telling and finding interest in the most mundane subjects led him to give up journalism for a successful career as an author.
His latest work, The Food of a Younger Land, is interesting, if not quite up to the standards of his best work. In the waning years of the depression, just before the beginning of World War II, the Federal Writers Project (part of the Works Progress Administration—one of FDR’s New Deal job programs) started a new project to be titled “America Eats”. The idea was to collect information on food and folk traditions from around the country and document them.
The project was never completed—the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor interrupted it. A great deal of material was collected, however, and it’s lain in couple of dusty boxes in the Library of Congress for more than sixty years until Kurlansky found it, edited it, and produced the book The Food of a Younger Land.
As you might expect from such a collection, the writing is uneven. There are pieces by well known writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and a recipe by Kenneth Roberts, whose Good Maine Food is still a valuable cookbook, and pieces by unknown authors. The country is unevenly represented—some areas completed their work and some submitted nothing. But Kurlansky is an editor with great sensitivity to his material and the selection is fascinating.
Local food traditions give rise to an amazing number of celebrations. Possum, grunions, lutefisk, oysters, crab, salmon, buffalo, chitlins, eggnog, beef, pig fries, and many other foods set the stage for a community gathering. Stories of oddities like the Oregon family that swore, after one of the family was killed and eaten by a cougar, to kill and eat every cougar they could find—generation after generation—are included as is a hilarious rant against the current state of mashed potatoes. Recipes are given. Strangely, most of the useful ones seem to be for strong drink, but some food recipes such as Depression Cake (made without eggs or butter) or Grand Central Oyster Stew (which is still made the same way at Grand Central Station in New York and which I’ve made many times) are still useful. Others, such as Squirrel Mulligan, Minnesota Booya, Kentucky Burgoo or Virginia Brunswick Stew look scary, even to me. Still, they are part of are traditions and deserve (suitably modified) to be brought back.
There is historical material not available elsewhere such as information on Indian cooking and the picnics that immigrants to Los Angeles held yearly to celebrate there home state.
Finally, Food of a Younger Land includes the amazing (?) poem, “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners” that begins:
Nebraskans eat the wieners,
And are they considered swell!
They are eaten by the millions,
That is one way you can tell.
I’m afraid you’ll have to buy The Food of a Younger Land to read the rest of this one of a kind epic. I’m considering having it set to music and sung at my funeral.