Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 2 2009 7:01 AM

Down-Home-Cooking Nation

Did you know the Federal Writers Project funded foodies?

Read more from Slate's Food issue.

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The womenfolk busy themselves setting rough tables and benches with plates of fresh brown doughnuts and sour dill pickles. The outdoor air is electric with excitement and anticipation. At last it is ready. The hot sugar is ladled onto the snow in fantastic patterns, quickly cooling and hardening into brittle amber pools against the white. The sugar is taken up with forks, wound about the tines, and lifted to the mouth. The taste is indescribable. It is rich and smooth and pleasing, delicate and pure.

Observation, not style, was the strong suit here—nobody would dare use the term indescribable in a food story today—but the snow, the fork, and the pickles are the details that make America Eats a treasure.

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Nostalgia flowed copiously through these reports, and the happy talk rarely let up. Every fish-fry and Masonic lodge supper glowed with love and good cheer, just like the effortless dinner parties and all-nurturing family meals in contemporary food journalism. "A picnic indeed: It's more than that, really—it's an Iowa picnic; and the moment you enter the park you begin to feel something of that infectious spirit of goodfellowship which is but one of the many delightful characteristics of this gay and colorful occasion," ran the description of a yearly gathering for displaced Iowans in Los Angeles. A Tampa writer went to an arroz con pollo feast at a Hispanic club and reported, "Latin gestures and full-throated laughter accompanied the Babel of conversation. These people were certainly having a good time!"

Few of the America Eats contributors went on to become famous as writers of any sort, and Kurlansky has to take a few liberties to include the ones who did. The history of Midwestern food attributed to Nelson Algren—a piece so simple-minded it sounds like the voice-over to a bad documentary—came from an unsigned manuscript whose authorship has long been in dispute. Eudora Welty's ladylike roundup of Southern recipes "gleaned from ante-bellum homes" was produced for the Writers Project and published as an advertising pamphlet. Only Zora Neale Hurston's "Diddy-Wah-Diddy" had some life to it: She evokes "the largest and best known of the Negro mythical places," where a traveler can just sit on the curb and "a big baked chicken will come along with a knife and fork stuck in its sides." After the chicken comes a sweet potato pie, also complete with cutlery, and no matter how much he eats, there's always more. "It is a place of no work and no worry," wrote Hurston—perhaps the only America Eats writer who recognized a food fantasy when she saw one.

Maybe Pearl Harbor was the best thing that could have happened to America Eats. Though many of these reports appear to capture long-lost foodways, there's no telling how accurate they are, especially because the editors encouraged writers to liven up their work by using the techniques of fiction. If all this relentlessly heartwarming material had been polished to a correct smoothness and published 70 years ago, today it would sound like a children's book about food in the olden days. What do deserve immortality are the unedited voices of the writers and the characters they showcased—rejoicing, remembering, noticing, maybe falsifying, definitely embellishing. Is this how America ate? Who knows? But it's how America chose to imagine itself at history's table, comfortably surrounded by like-minded neighbors and the endless bounty of the land.

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