The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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.

I don’t know if they still have booya cookouts in Minnesota (I’m familiar with — but have never eaten — the regional specialty of lutefisk), but there’s a recipe for booya if you can lay your hands on 30 pounds of oxtails and a peck each of kohlrabi and rutabagas, as well as some other things). I suspect that Washington state smelt fries are pretty much a thing of the past, along with Rhode Island May breakfasts. Pity. Some of these events sound like a lot of fun, not to mention some of the food sounds tasty.

There are recipes of all sorts in the book, many of which are impossible to follow for a modern cook, since most of us are used to very detailed recipes. These are mostly of the “goodly bit of this, chunk of that, enough of whatever” variety of recipe. One that gives lots of detail (aside from the booya above) is for Kow Kanyon potatoes, which sounds good, but starts with 25 pounds of potatoes. I don’t have that many people to cook for! If you do, you might like to try it.

Speaking of potatoes, there is a good bit of material about Oklahoma here, including the fact that the Suzi-Q potato was created in Oklahoma City in 1938. My favorite piece in the book has to be the bit about mashed potatoes (spuds again) titled “An Oregon Protest against Mashed Potatoes” by Claire Warner Churchill. She wasn’t actually opposed to mashed potatoes, just what some people (mostly restaurant cooks) did to them. You might think it would be hard to get four typeset pages out of a rant about mashed potatoes, but dear Claire got four beautiful pages out of it.

It’s sad to think about the books that might have come out of this abandoned project but didn’t, but I’m glad that Kurlansky rescued the bits he did. An interesting and informative read.

Linda Cannon is the circulation supervisor/collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.