Monday, May 17, 2010

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky

This book is a wonderful reminder of how unique we Americans were from region to region back in the "olden" days. Our country has become more homogenized since the 1930's with the advent of such things as the highway system, air transportation, and now the internet. Mark Kurlansky's book recalls a time when our seperateness and our unique backgrounds revealed itself in our cooking and traditions.

The last time our economy went down the stink hole there was no such thing as unemployment benefits to those who lost their jobs. But for the first time we did have a President that thought the government should play a role in helping it's citizens get back on their feet. One of the ways that he did this was by creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

One of the best things about this program was that President Roosevelt didn't leave the artists standing on the sidelines. Among the programs of the WPA was the Federal Writers Project created to give writers an opportunity to earn some needed income. One of their projects was to go across the land finding local writers to describe their best, most unique, and clearly local cuisine.

Then the war came along and the project ended, but all the writings remained for an intrepid author like Mark Kurlansky to find for us. Kurlansky has mostly left the original writings intact and does not overly interject which makes it refreshing. He mostly leaves it to his reader to sift through the old slang, slurs, and general descriptions that wouldn't be used today. It gives the book a genuine quality and reminds you throughout that these were written 70 plus years ago.

The book is broken down into regions starting with the Northeast and Johnny Cakes, Oyster Stew from Grand Central (still available today), and the truly fun sounding Vermont Sugar Off. A Vermont sugar off was done on cold, cold mornings with a large group of family & friends getting together to harvest the syrup from the sugar maples. Talk about having a sweet tooth.

It is the south that really takes the cake for strange traditions and regional cooking. I found it highly entertaining to read about the Chitterling Strut. I had to wiki chitterling but after I did I was enthralled and slightly revolted. A chitterling is pig intestine, cleaned, steamed, and prepared in a number of ways. When a pig was slaughtered a great amount of chitterlings was prepared, everybody came and stuffed their faces and then danced the night away - a chitterling strut.

Another unforgettable food tradition was written about in the chapter titled "Cooking for the Threshers in Nebraska." Written from the point of view of a young woman who had participated every summer when she was a child, it reveals the jaw-dropping amount of work a farm wife had to do. When the wheat was ready for threshing all of the men from neighboring farms came to pitch in along with a number of their wives to help in the kitchen. Nothing was simple; eggs had to be collected, butter churned, cows milked, bread had to rise, and chickens needed to be plucked. They baked several cakes and pies, loaves and loaves of bread, sides of beef, potatoes, pickles, tomatoes, etc. And that was just for lunch!

Every region has something wonderful to offer from the Basques of Boise Valley,to salmon in the Pacific Northwest, Texas chuck wagons, and Southwestern barbecues. It is not a book of recipes, although you will find several of those, but more a delightful walk through the kitchens of America and the people that inhabit them.