Reviewed by Kendra Langdon Juskus
Flourish magazine, Spring 2010
On the final night of a visit to India last summer, all five of my senses were treated to the sort of vibrant experience only India can offer, though the experience came in the surprising form of a mango pickle. The pickle, which sat on my hosts’ kitchen table in a glass jar, looked like raw animal flesh that had simmered in a broth of melted orange crayon. It felt like a hairy wad of sap and smelled like a fermented chili pepper. However, the pickle tasted divinely sweet and spicy–when eaten in moderation (about a fingertip-full).
And how did I apply my sense of hearing to this experience? When my hostess shrieked as my husband shoved a whole slice of the stuff into his mouth. He, on the other hand, had to remain silent until the burning and puckering of his mouth had stopped.
Needless to say, the gastronomic experience was memorable, and, I assumed, singular. To me, and to many in the U.S., “pickle” usually connotes a long and (hopefully) crispy green spear draped across your plate at a diner. If you’re particularly aware, or grew up in a farming community, you might associate the term with the preserving of several other foods. But when I picked up Mark Kurlansky’s latest book, The Food of a Younger Land, I discovered an extensive list of things pre-World War II Vermonters, in particular, were in the habit of pickling: “Pears, peaches, apples, plums, raspberries, cucumbers, red and green tomatoes, beets, and mustard pickles.” I also read recipes for lemon pickles, sweet pumpkin pickles, and spiced pickled apples.
“Eating crow” is what one might call the correction of my naive assumption about pickles. Crow, incidentally, is one of the few creatures not baked, broiled, or basted in this American culinary history.
The fascinating morsels of culture and ecology that comprise that history were unearthed only secondarily by Kurlansky. The first people to research and collect the regionalized eating habits explored in this book did so in the late 1930s, as part of an assignment sponsored by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. That project, charged with developing employment opportunities for down-and-out writers during the Great Depression, engaged some now-famous names (Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and Stetson Kennedy, among others) in cataloguing the country’s culinary landscape for a book project called America Eats.
Unfortunately, when the country entered World War II, the Federal Writers’ Project was subsumed into the war effort, and the America Eats project was abandoned, its manuscripts relegated to files at the Library of Congress. In The Food of a Younger Land, Kurlansky resurrects those files, though his goal is not to create the book-that-might-have-been. Instead, with careful selection and editing of the pieces provided by writers for the original project, he opens the eyes of current generations to a specific moment in America’s gastronomic history.
Kurlansky writes: “With the Depression waning and war looming, it was clear that America and its customs would soon be changing … What could better spell the beginning of the end than bottled salad dressing, the manufacture of a product that was so easy to make at home? The editors of America Eats understood that in another ten years American food would be very different.”
So we are treated to a smorgasbord of stories and traditions that today are only remembered by a handful of the country’s most senior citizens. The book (and the country) is divided into five sections: the Northeast, the South, the Middle West, the Far West and the Southwest. In the Northeast, we read about a “game supper” in Maine, where the first course is squirrel pie, which tastes, predictably, “something like chicken.” But we are also exposed to the “Automat,” a New York City novelty and the harbinger of a century of fast, impersonal meals. The author of that segment, Edward O’Brien, wrote, “This type of self-service eating place is the result of deep probing into the needs of the five-minute metropolitan center. Here, the man-in-a-hurry is worried by no middle-men; his relationship with his fodder, over which he may gloat, ruminate, or despair, is strictly private. He selects, pays, conveys, eats, and departs, leaving no tip, uttering no sound.”
In the South we are introduced to meals of conch (now overfished, Kurlansky notes), more squirrel dishes, some sustainably prepared meals from Native American traditions, and a chitterling (pig intestine) “strut.”
But in this second part of the book, we also begin to see a trend that differs from current norms and the culture of the Automat: People eat together. People really eat together. Many of the southern dishes obviously emerge out of privation–simple cakes of corn or even ash often serve as entire meals. So when more is available, more people are invited to enjoy it. In fact, most of the notable meals in this book are recipes cooked up for social gatherings–church meetings (where members would eat before the meeting, instead of looking for a meal as some sort of prize for sitting through church business), dances, farmhand gatherings, and, more often than not, celebrations to mark the availability of a particular delicacy in season.
This sense of anticipation over a favorite meal’s seasonal availability is heightened in the Middle West portion of the book, which opens with a spring chicken fry (“To the Kansan, rural or urban, fried chicken is always associated with the 4th of July as is turkey with Thanksgiving … Spring friers are ready for the pan at this time of year”) and commentary on the Sioux nation’s dependence on a variety of game, according to the seasonal climate.
In today’s context, where the importance and attraction of eating seasonally appropriate produce is just beginning to take root, the concept of eating particular meats in season seems a long way off. But in these pages, the calendar of the food year runs on a palpable cycle, marked by foods harvested at their peak freshness, meals cooked according to the dictates of weather, and celebrations held to commemorate each flip of the calendar page. With refrigeration still mostly a luxury and the interstate highway system not yet a reality, the meals described in this book are not gorged on according to the feaster’s whims from dinner-to-dinner, but savored in acquiescence to the earth’s ability to provide.
The collection of pieces from the Far West section of the book continues this theme, mostly captured in a diatribe against restaurants that serve mashed potatoes out of season. Commentary from this section also foreshadows conflicts between citizens’ alimentary needs and the protection of wild lands by the state–the sort of conflict that continues to this day, and an understandable one in the light of the article titled “A Washington Community Smelt Fry.” A publicity stunt preceding the actual fry of the state-protected smelt entailed heating a 10-foot skillet, greasing it by tying bacon rind to girls’ feet and sending them skating across the skillet, and then dumping hundreds of pounds of smelt into the skillet and turning them with a garden rake, just to dump the cooked contents back into the river.
Finally, the Southwest portion of the book spotlights an area of the country still coming into its own at the time of the America Eats project. It features the health food of Los Angeles as well as the traditional enchiladas and empanadas that were, at that time, the real estate of Mexican American families, and still unfamiliar foodstuffs to the rest of the country. Oklahoma and Texas are domineered by the traditions of cowboys and ranchers, and one finishes the book, unfortunately, with a final story about the agony of branding and castrating young calves (from which the euphemistic–and reportedly delectable–”prairie oysters” are obtained, of course).
Kurlansky makes little comment on these narratives except to explain the context here or there or apologize for a bigoted portrayal of women or minorities given the pre-Civil Rights era of the writing. Mostly he lets the ironies and delights and sorrows of the narratives speak for themselves, except for the commentary he provides in a comprehensive introduction to the book, in which he points out one of the greatest losses our food system has imposed on itself as it has evolved:
“But the most striking difference of all was that in 1940 America had rivers on both coasts teeming with salmon, abalone steak was a basic dish in San Francisco, the New England fisheries were booming with cod and halibut, maple trees covered the Northeast and syruping time was as certain as a calendar, and flying squirrels still leapt from conifer to hardwood in the uncut forests of Appalachia. All of this has changed. It is terrifying to see how much we have lost in only seventy years.”
Still, loss is not the only message conveyed through these snapshots of American culture. Anyone who idealizes the past too wholeheartedly may find themselves filled with gratitude for refrigeration and “time-saving devices” after reading through the arduous processes behind some recipes. And many of the culinary habits and traditions that were abandoned in the decades immediately following the collection of these stories are being recovered today. It is possible that the importance of these stories might have been overlooked if read during the decades when enriched foods and prepared meals reigned supreme and were deemed healthy choices.
Instead, today’s readers will resonate with these writers’ insistence that vegetables be consumed in season or preserved, that meals be cooked from scratch, and that local food feed a local population. These same sentiments are in vogue today in part because they have been resurrected from America’s culinary past. There is still more to be gleaned from that past that will inform the future health of the earth and ourselves, and for that reason the stories in this book are not simply quaint, but important.
This is certainly not a book for everyone. A person who can’t bear to read pages and pages of recipes that include some archaic instructions and forgotten diction will be bored with large sections of this work. But those who can appreciate the idiosyncrasies of a moment in human time and then plunge through them into the rich scents and tastes of what has sustained our nation will be treated to a feast for the senses–as any good meal should be.