The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

July 10, 2009

Book review: Regional foodways explored in new compilation

“The Food of a Younger Land.”

By Mark Kurlansky

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) employed millions of people who were otherwise hard pressed to find jobs.

Many people are familiar with the building projects, ranging from bridges and roads and dams and recreation areas (including the Lake of the Ozarks) to theaters and hospitals, but mostly forgotten are the arts programs including art and theater projects and (we arrive at our destination) the work of the Federal Writers’ Project.

In addition to the completed guides to the states and other geographic regions and works of general historic interest (the Joplin Public Library owns the Missouri guide book written at that time as well as a couple of other FWP books), work was done on a project about the regional foodways of the United States to be called “America Eats.” Sadly, the project was abandoned shortly after our entrance into World War II when the WPA began to shut down as the war reinvigorated the economy and ended the need for the subsidized employment the WPA was created to provide. Even during its lifetime, it was not the best organized project ever undertaken, and some groups never submitted any reports, Missouri among them.

Mark Kurlansky has now selected some of the more interesting submissions and compiled them into “The Food of a Younger Land.” The book is divided into sections, according to the geographic divisions the Writers’ Project imposed, so we have the Northeast, the South, the Middle West, the Far West and the Southwest.

In the Northeast, there’s a lovely piece on the Automat (and what I wouldn’t give to have been able to eat at one at least once in my life) where you inserted coins and a little door (one among hundreds, if not thousands) opened so that you could retrieve your tasty prize. There’s also a piece on lunch-counter slang (like “axle grease” for butter or “burn one” for an order of toast). I suppose one can still get oyster stew supreme at the Oyster Bar at the Grand Central Terminal in New York City, but many of the foods and folkways have waned or vanished entirely. Of course, in the case of squirrel mulligan, that may not be an altogether bad thing.

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