Monday, June 22, 2009

Food, History, and The Great Depression

... Two hundred and fifty thousand New Yorkers go through these silent processes daily in favorite or convenient Automats. Some are regular customers, others appear only on certain days, keeping a tryst with a favorite dish. No New York wife knows her husband until she has studied him in an Automat. And all suburban mothers have learned that on a day in town lunch at the Automat is the kids' delight.

A stranger entering these precincts is led by the crown toward a trim marble counter, in which are several plate-like depressions. A nickel is the unit of purchase, so coins or bills are here exchanged for scintillating shower of nickels, which are miraculously never too many, never too few. With a fistful of nickels, and wearing hat, coat, carrying brief-case or handbag, the crowd moves on toward the walls of food, assembling as they go trays, silver, and napkins. ...
The Works Projects Administration (WPA) came up with an amazing quantity and variety of projects designed to help employ workers during The Great Depression. Many of the roads, buildings, and public lakes (such as White Rock Lake, here in Dallas) we enjoy today were begun under those auspices.

I have long been curious about the WPA's Federal Writers' Project from the 1930's which sent well known (and lesser known) writers to explore and document regional food. I remember reading that it was abandoned in the early 1940's because of World War II and then stored away in archives available only to a privileged few.

Mark Kurlansky has seen the archives and the result is The Food of a Younger Land which takes a choice sampling of each region and reproduces it for us. The pieces presented here are not as they would have been seen at the end of the project but rather the unedited copy as it was submitted from all over the country. Part of the treasure here is Kurlansky's introduction which explains the projected scope of the project before it was abandoned. That makes it much easier to understand the unevenness of the writing, length, and range of the pieces from one region to the next.

I tended to appreciate most the longer, more thorough articles but also found that the very brief pieces revealed much about just how much the average cook was assumed to know. We can see this from a quick glance at "Georgia Possums and Taters" which begins, "After catching the possum 'before you go to bed that night, scald the possum with lye and scrape off the hair.'

Oh, thanks but no, I had that yesterday ...

Anyone interested in regional U.S. history, whether of food or writing, will be rewarded by the content found in The Food of a Younger Land.

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