Book Review - Author Mark Kurlansky has some food for thought

Tuesday May 12, 2009 11:00 am EDT

Mark Kurlansky has a knack for making unusual food writing, such as a global history of salt or a comprehensive biography of cod fish, breeze along at the pace of a best seller. Despite those talents, he's resigned himself to editing in his latest, The Food of a Younger Land, letting writers such as Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty do the talking. Kurlansky has collected essays and recipes once intended for America Eats, a never-completed, Depression-era volume that documented local foods and eating habits prior to the advent of fast-food chains and interstates. America Eats is an unintentional holy grail for locavores, an unpublished archive focused on regional, seasonal and traditional food choices.
The Federal Writers Project funded hundreds of books during the Great Depression, employing writers who could "take an oath that you had no money, no job, and no property." Though the idea was sometimes as unpopular as today's stimulus package, this arts funding provided income for people who would become some of America's most lauded writers. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow and Hurston were on the payroll at one time or another, as well as plenty of folks who weren't great writers. In "states where there were few professional writers," Kurlansky explains, this "employment ... saved unqualified people and their families from literal starvation." Though the America Eats book was never completed, the essays collected by Kurlansky in The Food of a Younger Land offer an entertaining balance of these disparate American voices. Unpolished, vernacular pieces from unknown authors (left thankfully intact by Kurlansky), sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the clean prose of soon-to-be famous writers.  
Despite some literary pedigrees, the book doesn't offer examples of anyone's finest work. Algren, who liked to claim he spent more time drinking and "goldbricking" than writing while on the FWP payroll, contributes a bland and sprawling survey of traditional Midwest cuisine. An essay from Hurston, on the other hand, is a sublime yet painfully short yarn about a mythical land of good food.
The more obscure contributions are often more interesting, such as the irresistible Americana of recipes for Montana Fried Beaver Tail or Georgia Possum and Taters. Where else could someone suggest that a fried possum should have "three or four slices of breakfast bacon placed reverently across his breast"? Other entries are more pragmatic and informative, like a few pages on the geographic variations of Mint Juleps or a guide to "Raising Mushrooms in Pennsylvania."
The writers of this volume might never have anticipated the vast homogenization of food that would sweep the country over interstates on frozen trucks. Organized here by region, though, The Food of a Younger Land celebrates food that once was and still could be.

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