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Local smorgasbord

Book>> The food of a younger land: A Portrait of American food from the lost WPA files • by Mark Kurlansky • Riverhead books • RS 500

By Robi Chowdhury
Published: Wednesday 15 September 2010

The food of a younger landDuring the Great Depression, US Works Progress Administration hit upon a novel way to find employment for out-ofwork scribes and writers.

It asked them to document what people in different regions of the US were eating. At the end of the Depression, the agency gave up the project. The material collected languished in the archives.

Food writer Mark Kurlansky has ferreted them out. It’s a veritable treasure trove. One Roaldus Richmond lists many fruits people in Vermont pickled in the 1930s: pears, peaches, apples, plums, raspberries and cucumbers. Richmond also includes a recipe for lemon pickle. Did the people in the northeastern state of the US get enough on the southern fruit to pickle it? Or maybe lemon was seasonally available, so people bought them and preserved it for later years. There is also a delightful account of baked beans of New England by James Francis Davis.

imageThe dish originated with the Puritans, who shunned all work on Sabbath. They made the dish on Saturday night and ate it on Sunday. Davis wrote that the households of the 1930s kept to Saturday night culinary ritual, even though the religious injunction against Sunday work was relaxed.

These snapshots of American culinary culture are significant because they predate the homogenising culture of McDonalds and KFC. Even during the Depression there was a sense of loss about American culinary culture. So the writers working for Works Progress set out to document not just traditional dishes but also traditional attitudes to food.

Kurlansky’s discovery’s significant because it comes at a time when the world is discovering the value of local food. It portrays communities who were more food resilient, and self-sufficient, than most of us are now.

Robi Chowdhury is a playwright

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