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The Food of a Younger Land

How America used to eat.

By Bridget Huber / June 22, 2009

Food was local, seasonal, and produced on a small scale. Social life revolved around harvests, public suppers, and feasts. And thousands of unemployed writers were given jobs chronicling, among other things, the way the country ate. Sound like heaven? Actually, this was the United States three generations ago.

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The Food of a Younger Land, the latest book edited by Mark Kurlansky, is a collection of food writing that traipses in and out of kitchens, church suppers, and lumber camps to paint a portrait of American food culture in the 1930s and early ’40s, before it was forever changed by the advent of national highways, fast food, and industrial agriculture.

The book collects writing produced by the Federal Writers Project (FWP), a Works Projects Administration program that employed nearly 7,000 writers at its peak. Though most of its writers were novices, luminaries such as Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, and Zora Neale Hurston are among its alumni. FWP writers collected oral histories and wrote ethnographies and guidebooks.

In the late 1930s, the FWP turned its attention to food, beginning a book that was to be called “America Eats.” Food writing at that time was largely confined to recipe books and women’s magazines that “followed the belief that women were not interested in politics and social problems,” Kurlansky writes. In contrast, this book was to approach food seriously and divide its attention evenly between the food itself and the customs and culture that surrounded it.

But World War II changed all that. “America Eats” was abruptly abandoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the unedited manuscripts were sent to the Library of Congress. A few years ago, Kurlansky stumbled upon the boxes in the course of research for another book, and gleaned “The Food of a Younger Land.”

A highlight is Mari Tomasi’s essay, “Italian Feed in Vermont.” The city of Barre was a granite center and drew droves of skilled carvers from northern Italy. But the trade was a dangerous one and made widows of many young wives. To support their children, some of these women opened their home kitchens, cooking “Italian feeds” for truck drivers, bureaucrats, and other professionals.

Tomasi describes the scene in Maria Stefani’s dining room after the appetizers and pasta course: “The food looks good; it tastes better. Geniality expands. Stomachs gorge in leisurely contentment. Belts loosen. Maria’s daughter, in horror, lest glutted appetites fail to appreciate the joys yet to come, hints subtly to novices, ‘Will you have salad with your meat? And will you have fried chicken or chicken alla cacciatore?’”


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