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Preserving American food traditions: the food of a younger land

Nov. 16, 2009

by intern Catherine King

I am constantly curious about what other people are eating. After friends return from traveling, I want to hear about their favorite meal of the trip. If I call my mom at dinnertime, I want to know what she’s cooking. When I ran into a good friend shortly after she crossed the finish-line of the New York Marathon, I couldn’t resist asking for details on her pre-race meal, even as she stood doubled-over nursing a cramp. My friends and co-workers know that any mention of an interesting meal could illicit a number of follow-up questions from my end. I just can’t help myself… When it comes to food, I have a curious mind.

So when I came across Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, based on the food traditions of the America my grandmothers grew up in, I felt I was the perfect audience. The collection of essays aims to be a portrait of American eating before our highways, chain restaurants and industrial farming made many of our dining habits homogeneous. And while I would disagree with Kurlansky’s perspective that our food traditions have all but disappeared, I won’t dispute the point that regional food is now something to be sought out; often buried under generic strip malls filled with Panera Bread, Chili’s and Chipotle. The many traditions that make up American eating have unquestionably evolved, and The Food of a Younger Land is an interesting reflection on where we’ve been.

Following his earlier food explorations, Salt and Cod, Kurlansky’s newest came together by chance. While doing research on another book, he stumbled across hundreds of unpublished essays by the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP), a depression-era employment agency created by the Works Progress Administration. The essays were meant to be published as a collective guide to regional American food, America Eats. But just as writers were sending in finished (or unfinished) pieces in December 1941, bombs rained on Pearl Harbor and the country went to war. Funding for the FWP dried up and the project dissolved before the America Eats essays could be edited or published.





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