Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mark Kurlansky on Depression-Era Food Writing

In Mark Kurlansky’s book “The Food of a Younger Land” (Riverhead, $28), the acclaimed food writer and journalist has published lost essays from the Federal Writers’ Project from the 1930s, that explores lost regional cuisine and food culture, like a Maine clambake, how to cook possum in Georgia and what and how the Sioux Indians ate.

Kurlansky discovered a stack of unpublished essays done for the Works Progress Administration and the FWP from 1938 to 1940. The FWP and its guides to the American states were the brainchild of Katherine Kellock. Her last project, as World War II was looming, was “America Eats,” a guidebook of regional cuisine, which was never completed. Wonderful finds in the book are food writing by novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson Algren, who both worked for the FWP. Kurlansky’s beautifully edited text covers the rivalry over Manhattan and New England clam chowder, the joys of jonny cakes in Rhode Island, church dinners in Alabama, how Nebraska cooks its rabbits, Los Angeles tacos and Oklahoma prairie oysters. The book captures the diversity of pre-World War II Americans and their proud regional culinary differences, many which are now gone. It is advisable to read this book before dinner.

Kurlansky, 61, is the author of the bestselling books “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” and “Salt: A World History.” He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at his office in Manhattan.

Q. How did you discover that the unpublished writings of “America Eats” were at the Library of Congress?

A. I know about the project because the novelist Nelson Algren’s contribution to “America Eats” had been published posthumously. Going to the Library of Congress, it was really like opening up a time capsule. Here were manuscripts that had been typed on onion-skin paper and carbons. One of the great things about the project was that it hadn’t gone very far on the editorial side. Nobody had ever read these pieces. Here I am, 60 years later, reading them. Some of them were great, some of them were horrible, some were in between.

Q. The FWP was killed because of World War II. Why?

A. I found this entire box of letters, panicky letters around the time of Pearl Harbor that said “Get your copy in now!” The editors knew it was all over. Social programs were canceled because the money went into defense. After the war, the money never came out of defense.

Q. Who was Katherine Kellock, the head of the FWP?

A. She was a real enthusiast, a small woman with a loud voice. She realized that there were no real American guidebooks. The last American guidebook had been written by a Brit in 1907. Because of the shock of the Depression in the 1930s, there was a real movement to take a look at America. She realized that guidebooks would be a great thing for the 4,000 or 5,000 writers under her command to do. They did guidebooks of all 48 states. When Kellock exhausted the guidebooks, she came up with other things like “America Eats.”

Q. You discovered a two-foot pile of manuscripts. How did you shape it?

A. I weeded out most of the stuff from the South that was really offensively racist. There were also about 500 pieces that started with the line, “In the autumn, when the weather turns crisp....” Half the stuff was awful.

Q. There is a long, troubling piece, called “the chitterling strut,” from North Carolina, told in African-American slang. Was that article considered anthropology?

A. Part of it was the anthropology of the day, which was “talking to the Negro.” Often in the interviews, black people were identified by their first name, then “a Negro” after the name. I wanted to show what the pre-civil rights South was like.

Q. How did the homogenization of American food take place after the war?

A. It was the postwar highway system. Instead of driving 40 miles an hour down local roads, you were driving down highways where you can only turn off at the exits. The food choices all became fast foods. People got franchises to go along the highways. You still have some local food festivals, though, like the persimmon festival in southern Indiana. So many places you go, you can’t get anything food that gives you a sense of place. When people ask me what is my favorite food, I tell them “Food that tells me where I am.”

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in May 2009)

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