Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land.

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June 2 2009 7:01 AM

Down-Home-Cooking Nation

Did you know the Federal Writers Project funded foodies?

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Jacket image of The Food of a Younger Land.

Among the fortunate Americans who managed to find employment during the Great Depression was a Florida woman named Rose Shepherd—or, as she often signed her work, "Rose Shepherd, Writer." We don't know much else about Rose Shepherd, Writer, but we do know how she paid the rent in those years: She applied to the Federal Writers Project, an economic-recovery program that actually included writing under the rubric of useful work and paid people to do it (radical at the time, inconceivable now). The Writers Project produced hundreds of books and pamphlets, including a now-legendary series of travel guides, and Shepherd herself was sent to interview a number of elderly Floridians for a compilation of oral histories. But late in the 1930s, she started to get a different sort of assignment. Suddenly they wanted her to write about food.

The project was called America Eats, and it was going to be a collection of essays on community food events from coast to coast—the first book of American food writing, in other words, though nobody used that term, because there was no such genre. Which isn't to say there was no American food writing. Everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Gertrude Stein seems to have tried a hand at food writing by the time America Eats was conceived. (Stein: "They do have pie, they all do have pie, they do not all eat pie, there are a very great many who never eat pie, but anywhere and everywhere if you want pie you can have pie.") That wasn't exactly what the editors of this project had in mind. They could see canned chili and Jell-O settling over the land, and they wanted to document the nation's traditional culinary gatherings before convenience products did away with real spiced beef, real coconut cake, real clam chowder, and real mint juleps.

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So Rose Shepherd and scores of other writers around the country went out to watch Americans eat. No book was ever published—the project was disbanded after the attack on Pearl Harbor—but a vast jumble of culinary memories, recipes, descriptions, and narratives ended up at the Library of Congress and other archives around the country. In recent years, food historians have started exploring this incomparable resource, and now we have the first anthology: Mark Kurlansky's The Food of a Younger Land. In a note explaining how he decided on the five dozen or so selections here, Kurlansky says he chose "not always the best but the most interesting pieces," an approach well-suited to this hodgepodge of raw material from a very mixed bag of writers. To read his picks, as well as a few favorites from my own research in the America Eats files, is to discover that something else was going on while these reporters were visiting lutefisk suppers, taking notes on the preparation of Brunswick stew, describing a Hopi baby-naming feast, and interviewing cooks like "Uncle Ed, an old negro servant." They were inventing a literary genre. It proliferated for the next half-century, unnamed and unacknowledged, but eventually there was so much of it around that Barnes & Noble had to come up with a new shelf label: "Food Writing."

Fast asleep for all those years in the Library of Congress, the America Eats manuscripts obviously had no direct influence on postwar food writing. Yet these Depression-era writers, most of whom had never imagined composing whole paragraphs about food, came up with what might be a template for the form. They were on a rescue mission, just like today's food writers. By now readers are so accustomed to hearing about America's lost culinary Eden, they could probably write the stories themselves—where, oh where, are those happy hours we used to spend in the kitchen, with Mom making dinner and the children absorbing knife skills? Whatever happened to the small farms that used to supply each town with fresh corn, fresh tomatoes, fresh goat's milk, fresh poussin? How did we ever learn to settle for commercial ice cream when it's so laughably easy to make syllabub straight from the cow?

The very premise of America Eats—that bad food was driving out good—is still being discovered over and over, like the food-section equivalent of Groundhog Day. And although writers in the '30s didn't have the terms terroir and locavore to toss around, they could certainly recognize the holy grail when they saw it sitting on the porch. "Grandma Smith, sprightly, deeply wrinkled and bronzed by outdoor life, and with a bit of Choctaw ancestry, gives this recipe for hoecake," reported a Mississippi contributor. " 'Take you about a quart of meal; a teaspoon salt (it mightn't be salt enough for you an' again it might); make it up (not too soft) with water (some folks use hot water to make it stick together but I don't have no such trouble iffen I bake it good an' brown—an' to my mind hot water gives it a gummy taste). ...' "

Under a strict editorial mandate to focus on the truly authentic, the writers fanned out like a pack of Chowhound bloggers to hunt down tripe in Arizona, crawfish in Louisiana, and lunch at the Automat. ("The hot beef or chicken pies, baked in individual deep dishes and covered with brown and flaky crusts, are among the culinary wonders of New York—produced as they are, in perfect and uniform thousands!") Some of their write-ups clearly wouldn't have made the final cut—Rose Shepherd went to a lecture on dietetics sponsored by a gas company, with a lunch featuring canned pineapple and cottage cheese—but many quests were successful. One America Eats writer found the culinary roots of Vermont at a sugaring-off party, held under the maples in the early spring:

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.

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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