The Food Of A Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky
This book is immensely disappointing on a variety of levels. Most of the book’s problems result from the agenda of the writer, who seeks to find in the abortive federal project to collect local recipes some sort of lost innocence before the days of rapid travel and food techniques created a more homogenous American foodway. This would be well and good if the author was a genuine food historian whose interest was in obscure recipes and cuisines from various parts of the United States, but alas, the author has plenty of other less friendly agendas that derail the efforts. For one, the author is most fascinated by leftist politics, praising various socialist and communist efforts and neglecting the food in order to praise the grifters who were involved in this project and their careers. Unfortunately, a great many people got paid salaries to do little other than try to grouse about their job and work on getting their works published in other venues to allow themselves to no longer need to work for the government in a spot that most of them could see was a dead-end, just like this book. As a result, the author’s work on the disorganized notes from the WPA project mostly remind the reader there is a reason why these documents are forgotten and neglected.
This book is nearly 400 pages long and it is divided by region, the same way that the Federal Writers Project was divided. The author begins with a short introduction and then moves on to discuss the food of the Northeast, which includes plenty of reference to New York and New England’s culture as well as things like rabbit stew, lots of clam chowders, and baked beans. The author then talks about the South’s eating habits, with things like African-American food, backwoods barbecues, and possum recipes as well as chitlins and a controversy over mint julep. This is followed by the foodways of the Midwest–not including Illinois–including popcorn, pork cake, lamb and pig fries, pheasants, and persimmon pudding. This is then followed by a look at the eating habits of the far west, including salmon feasts, geoduck clams, beaver tail, wild duck, and some unwarranted hostility to mashed potatoes by some Oregon wacko. This is then followed by some recipes from the Southwest, including tacos, prairie oysters, and a story of how John Walton became governor of Oklahoma. The book then ends with a brie and informal bibliography, acknowledgements, suggested reading, and an index.
Much of this would be easy enough to forgive if the food included was actually worthwhile, but that is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book is that it even fails the modest test of a cookbook in providing tasty and worthwhile recipes that someone might want to cook for themselves. It should not need to be said that the obvious purpose of trying to study relic foodways is to bring them back into existence through recording and writing recipes and techniques. This book does not have that in any great amount. The vast majority of the food included here is food that is biblically unclean to eat and thus unworthy of being brought back into existence. The author, as a Jew (whatever his practice of it), should have been aware of that fact, but deliberately chooses to write about foods that should not be eaten as a way of justifying the political interests of the author, which are, if anything, just as improper as the foodways that he manages to discuss from time to time. Unless you have a fondness for studying the ways that governments can waste taxpayer money by employing leftist writers to study areas outside of their competence to minimal result, this is a book that is best skipped.