Feature

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

"Would you please pass the fried beaver tail?" Mark Kurlansky's book on the eating habits of earlier Americans is based on a project commissioned by the Federal Writers Project during the Depression.

(Riverhead, 397 pages, $28)

Americans don’t make fried beaver tail the way they used to, says author Mark Kurlansky. Just 70 years ago, a family pulling off the highway for a quick bite could expect to find peanut soup in Virginia, sour-milk doughnuts in Vermont, and abalone steak in San Francisco. If they asked around, they might find an Arkansan who knew how many flying squirrels belong in a Mulligan stew or a Nebraskan eager to explain why Bostonians were pikers when it came to baked beans. As it happens, the head of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project sensed even then that regional food customs were vanishing. The last project that the agency commissioned was a never-published survey of America’s culinary landscape. Kurlansky stumbled upon the project files at the Library of Congress.

The greatest-hits compendium that Kurlansky culled from that 2-foot stack of manuscripts takes us back “in a savory, scary, and sometimes funny way to what Americans of an earlier era ate,” said Jack Thomas in The Boston Globe. Besides teaching us that the roasted skin of a beaver tail will peel like a banana, the book reminds us that almost nobody in our grandparents’ day was watching their intake of sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fat. Nelson Algren and Zora Neale Hurston are among the great writers whose contributions made the cut, and one of “the more delightful essays” is a study of antebellum recipes by Eudora Welty.

Food From a Younger Land “is no literary trove,” though, said Jonathan Miles in The New York Times. “Of the 4,500 writers employed by the FWP in 1938, only 29 were ‘established,’ and it shows.” Most of the book reads as if it were yanked straight from a hobbyist’s food blog. More troubling is that Kurlansky’s complaint about American food’s homogenization simply doesn’t ring true, said authors Jane and Michael Stern in the San Francisco Chronicle. We’ve traveled the country for 30 years writing about food, and can report that Indiana persimmon pudding, Carolina oyster roasts, and Rhode Island johnnycakes are still out there. Rather than lamenting their disappearance, Kurlansky could be celebrating them.

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