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Posted
June 15, 2009

Back When Food Was Really Local

Author resurrects lost WPA book manuscript about American eating traditions.

Americans have gotten so accustomed to getting food from supermarkets, which are supplied by huge corporations with heavily advertised, brand-name foods, that it is sometimes hard to imagine a world of rich, homegrown variety. If you went to Nebraska, you once got Nebraska baked beans. If you went to Georgia, you might get possum and taters. Alabama kitchens would serve up oyster roasts, Rhode Island would serve Jonny Cakes and Montanas considered fried beaver tail a delicacy.

One measure of what our nation has lost – in terms of culinary variety and authenticity – can be found in a new book, The Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead Books), edited by Mark Kurlansky. Its subtitle says it all: “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.”


Rabbit stew, a specialty of Long Island. Photo by cwphobia, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike license.

When I read the phrase, “from the lost WPA files,” I perked up. The WPA was the Works Progress Administration, Franklin Roosevelt’s brilliant innovation for getting people back to work during the Great Depression. One WPA project, the Federal Writers’ Project, sought to help unemployed writers. As author Kurlansky explains, the WPA “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.” The Federal Writers’ Project produced at least 276 books and hundreds of pamphlets and brochures. Its most famous product is surely its series of guidebooks to the states, many of which are classics still consulted today.

The Federal Writers’ Project was also responsible for a major book that never quite saw the light of day. Katherine Kellock, who ran the Project, decided in 1939 that it would be worthwhile to document how America eats. The intended book, America Eats, would describe the various eating traditions and foods in various parts of the U.S. As Kurlansky tells the story:

With the Depression waning and war looming, it was clear that America and its customs would soon be changing. By the 1930s frozen food was appearing. Industrial food from the beginning of the century, such as Jello-O, factory-made bread, and cake mixes, was making huge gains in the market from new advertising vehicles such as radio. 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 understand that in another ten years American food would be very different._

And so the word was sent out to FWP offices instructing writers to contribute to a 75,000-word book that would focus on “American cookery and the part it has played in the national life, as exemplified in the group meals that preserve not only traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes and customs. Emphasis should be divided between food and people.” Significantly, the book was to take food seriously, and not the way that women’s magazines might write about it. The tone was to be “light but not tea shoppe, masculine not feminine.”

For the next two years, the various writers projects around the country assigned, edited and polished contributions about food traditions from Maine to New Mexico and from the Dakotas to Florida. But Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War II interrupted the book’s progress, and in February 1943, the WPA itself was shut down. The unfinished notes and contributions for America Eats, in varying degrees of publishability, were stuffed into five boxes and shunted into a Library of Congress storeroom.

Those boxes were a time-capsule into America’s past, which Kurlansky discovered and edited into his just-published book, The Food of a Younger Land. Poring through onionskin carbon copies (photocopiers had not been invented!), Kurlansky found a “chaotic pile of imperfect manuscripts” – the raw dispatches from the field awaiting an editor’s keen eye and blue pencil. Ironically, this made the materials all the more revealing because the individual voices and direct accounts have an authentic flavor, even if there are also many gaps and omissions.

To browse through The Food of a Younger Land is to be transported into a time when mothers improvised recipes because of shortages of certain ingredients and fathers brought home fresh game from the woods and mussels from the ocean. The book describes the “sugaring off” parties in Vermont, where people hosted neighborhood celebrations as they finished off the annual tapping of sap from trees for maple syrup. It describes the making of persimmon beer among Mississippi African-Americans. In and around Darlington, South Carolina, people would host outdoor gatherings and serve “chicken bog,” a distinctive chicken-and-rice dish. Nebraskans loved buffalo barbeque and Wisconsin folks enjoyed sour-dough pancakes.

I’m not enough of a foodie to go nuts with this book, but I found it endlessly fascinating to read how American food was once had the improbable variety of the Internet — a world before McDonalds and Campbells Soup and Chilis had homogenized the locally distinctive into oblivion.

To the rest of the world, it may seem strange, even ludicrous, that something as basic as food traditions could be eclipsed; Michael Pollan eloquently makes this point in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But the rise and consolidation of national food markets over the past 75 years has assuredly achieved this amazing feat – the eclipse of the local.

To be sure, vestiges of the past remain. But their vitality is muted. The speed, convenience and (deceptive) cheapness of mass-produced and branded foods has prevailed. The riotous diversity of our food traditions and the fierce eccentricities of local identity are mostly gone.

How wonderful that one commons – the Federal Writers’ Project – has preserved the history of another – our vernacular food traditions and practices! As so many of us locavores try to resurrect a more locally rooted food system, we would do well to study the cast of mind of those who once cherished their local dishes. Browsing through The Food of a Younger Land will not only work up a powerful appetite, it will make you jealous of the gusto and pride that people once felt toward their daily food. That’s something worth recovering.