Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

1.01.2011

Gotta Catch Me a Possum

Review: The Food of a Younger Land: A portrait of American food--before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation's food was seasonal, regional, and traditional--from the lost WPA files. Edited and Illustrated by Mark Kurlansky.

I’m ashamed to admit I dropped my Kansas Folklore class in college. In some ways I think I was too young to really appreciate the topic, but in other ways I enjoyed it too much. Or I enjoyed it in the wrong way, rather. It was fascinating and fun, not academic, so I listened and read with rapt attention but never really took notes or consolidated my learning, and when it came time to take tests over facts and details I realized I was totally unprepared. To preserve my GPA, I dropped it halfway through the semester and stopped going. (But not before hearing how my professor became the foremost authority on the history of the cattle guard.)

Nevertheless, my interest in folklore has remained. Grown, if anything. Which made The Food of a Younger Land a great fit for me. This book is a portrait of the culture of the United States as seen through food practices before technology homogenized everything, when food was still local and eating had a very distinct regional personality. It’s history and anthropology and food and cooking and writing, all rolled into one package.

In some ways I could have quit after the lengthy introduction and been happy, because I learned about an aspect of U.S. history I was unaware of. A bit too much of that introduction follows, so I won’t belabor the point here, just say that it was fascinating reading. As was the rest of the book, although I approached it in the wrong way. It reminded me more than anything of travel food TV shows like Anthony Bourdain’s and Andrew Zimmerman’s, where they use food to learn about cultures. Those are episodic in nature, and if you watch too many in a row you begin to lose track of anything practical you’ve learned. I listened to the audio of this book in marathon sessions and found myself too frequently losing focus on the string of essays, recipes, and whatnot, because this is best digested in bits and pieces since that’s what it’s composed of. I’d like to go back and reread much of the actual book when I get a chance. And try some of the recipes, even. Highly recommended.

From the introduction:

A few years ago, while putting together Choice Cuts, an anthology of food writing, I discovered to my amazement that government bureaucrats in Washington in the late 1930s were having similar thoughts. But these were not typical bureaucrats because they worked for an agency that was unique in American history, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The WPA was charged with finding work for millions of unemployed Americans. It sought work in every imaginable field. For unemployed writers the WPA created the Federal Writers’ Project, which was charged with conceiving books, assigning them to huge, unwieldy teams of out-of-work and want-to-be writers around the country, and editing and publishing them.

After producing hundreds of guidebooks on America in a few hurried years, a series that met with greater success than anyone had imagined possible for such a government project, the Federal Writers’ Project administrators were faced with the daunting challenge of coming up with projects to follow their first achievements. Katherine Kellock, the writer-turned-administrator who first conceived the idea for the guidebooks, came up with the thought of a book about the varied food and eating traditions throughout America, an examination of what and how Americans ate.

She wanted the book to be enriched with local food disagreements, and it included New England arguments about the correct way to make clam chowder, southern debate on the right way to make a mint julep, and an absolute tirade against mashed potatoes from Oregon. It captured now nearly forgotten food traditions such as the southern New England May breakfast, foot washings in Alabama, Coca-Cola parties in Georgia, the chitterling strut in North Carolina, cooking for the threshers in Nebraska, a Choctaw funeral, and a Puget Sound Indian salmon feast. It also had old traditional recipes such as Rhode Island jonny cakes, New York City oyster stew, Georgia possum and taters, Kentucky wilted lettuce, Virginia Brunswick stew, Louisiana tete de veau, Florida conch, Minnesota lutefisk, Indian persimmon pudding, Utah salmi of wild duck, and Arizona menudo. Ethnic food was covered, including black, Jewish, Italian, Bohemian, Basque, Chicano, Sioux, Chippewa, and Choctaw. Local oddities, such as the Automat in New York, squirrel Mulligan in Arkansas, Nebraska lamb fries or Oklahoma prairie oysters, and ten-pound Puget Sound clams, were featured. Social issues were remembered, as in the Maine chowder with only potatoes, the Washington State school lunch program, and the western Depression cake. There was also humor to such pieces, as the description of literary teas in New York, the poem "Nebraskans Eat the Weiners," and the essay on trendy food in Los Angeles.

Kellock called the project
America Eats. . . .

Ironically, the chaotic pile of imperfect manuscripts has left us with a better record than would the nameless, cleaned-up, smooth-reading final book that Lyle Saxon was to have turned in. A more polished version would still be an interesting book today, a record of how Americans ate and what their social gatherings were like in the early 1940s. Like the guidebooks, it would have been well written and well laid out. And it would not have had frustrating holes and omissions. But we would have had little information on the original authors. There are among these boxes a few acknowledged masters, such as Algren and Eudora Welty, some forgotten literary stars of the 1930s, and authors of mysteries, thrillers, Westerns, children’s books, and food books, as well as a few notable local historians, several noted anthropologists, a few important regional writers, playwrights, an actress, a political speechwriter, a biographer, newspaper journalists, a sportswriter, university professors and deans, and a few poets. They were white and black, Jews, Italians, and Chicanos--the sons and daughters of immigrants, descendants of Pilgrims, and of American Indians. Typical of the times, there were a few Communists, a lot of Democrats, and at least two Republicans.

One thing that shines through the mountain of individual submissions is how well they reflect the original directive: “Emphasis should be divided between food and people.” It is this perspective that gives this work the feeling of a time capsule, a preserved glimpse of America in the early 1940s.

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