Food Writing via the WPA

July 15th is National Tapioca Pudding Day. I have nothing to say on the subject. No, seriously. I have never had tapioca pudding. I have no intention of trying tapioca pudding. I don’t even like the word ‘tapioca.’ Call it a peccadillo.

Food of A Younger LandWhat I’d much rather discuss is what I’ve been reading – in this case, Mark Kurlansky’s Food of a Younger Land. I first heard about the book when the author was interviewed on NPR and while I was interested in the topic (the subtitle is long enough to make description almost overkill —  “A Portrait of American Food Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal”) I was particularly intrigued by the story behind the papers he describes – planned but never executed WPA writing project America Eats.

The book consists of a selection of the writings chosen by Kurlansky from the stash found at the Library of Congress along with his – well, annotations essentially. Not annotations in format per se but in intention. He either puts the piece or writer in context, or – in the case of some of the pieces (notably those from the Deep South) makes it clear that these remain as they were and were written in ‘Very Different Times.’

It’s not the comprehensive look at what America was eating at the time (as America Eats was intended to be). Oh sure, there is some of that – by virtue of the fact that the material being used. And I love the diner slang lists and the idea that there was a knock down drag out fight somewhere over mashed potatoes. Foodies With Views are always good for an evening’s heated debate. But I don’t think this book isn’t intended to reflect what America was eating at the time as much as was a look at the project that was undertaken, who was involved, what sort of obstacles and challenges they faced and – in the end, a glance at ‘What Might Have Been.’

And speaking of what might have been – I’m not sure America Eats would have lived up to the standards set by the American Guides travel writing project, which is was loosely patterned on. The contributors writing is as wildly uneven as their topics are broad – and there seems to be no template any of them followed. There are poems and lists, recipes and essays. Seemingly whatever the food muses prompted them to put down, they put down. I’m not sure how America Eats would have ended up – and possibly it isn’t fair to judge based on these pieces (as incomplete and rushed as they apparently were) which are all that remain of a project interrupted by Pearl Harbor. Quite a lot of them were raw research reports from the field and wouldn’t have appeared in this format in the finished product. The best parts of the book are, in the end, Kurlansky’s as he explains how this book came about, describes the history and intentions of the project and profiles some of the participants – those known at the time and unknown now as well as the then unknowns whose names are now familiar to us all.

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