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The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America | [Mark Kurlansky]

The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America

Mark Kurlansky's new book takes us back to the food of a younger America. Before the national highway system brought the country closer together, before chain restaurants brought uniformity, and before the Frigidaire meant that frozen food could be stored for longer, the nation's food was seasonal, regional, and traditional. It helped to form the distinct character, attitudes, and customs of those who ate it.
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Audible Editor Reviews

While doing research at the Library of Congress for one of his books, food historian Mark Kurlansky landed upon a "cache of unedited manuscripts" about America's regional eating habits in the pre-World War II 1940s. The collection was a creation of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), President Roosevelt's central "New Deal" response to the massive unemployment of The Great Depression. A stack of almost two feet high, this large mass of manuscripts was intended for a book of a mere 75,000 words, America Eats. The editing and publication were scuttled by the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack and the U.S.'s entry into World War II.

"Ironically, the chaotic pile of imperfect manuscripts has left us with a better record than would the nameless, cleaned-up, smooth-reading final book," Kurlansky says. Citing the editor of the America Eats project — "Emphasis should be divided between food and people" — Kurlansky adds, "It is this perspective that gives this work the feeling of a time capsule, a preserved glimpse of American in the early 1940s." Critically important, Kurlansky chose "not always the best, but the most interesting pieces."

The Food of a Younger Land is a different kind of audiobook experience: less a forward flowing narrative and more of a cultural anthropological dig — with its finest pieces selected by a master of the art, and put on display. The narrative challenges of an audiobook of such a subject are considerable. The book is a celebration, and narrator Stephen Hoye sets an optimistic, upbeat, and friendly narrative tone. There are a large number of sections in the book, with diverse styles and tones and many different WPA authors. Hoye orchestrates this array nicely with tonal variations of the book's major, celebratory key.

The direct reporting of food and recipes by the WPA writers are relatively straightforward. The narrative demands are greater in the depiction of social scenes — easily the most interesting sections of The Food of a Younger Land. In the best of these sections, the narrative subjects seem to rise up from the ground, have their moment on the audio stage, and then fade out; returning to the stacks of carbon-copy print. This becomes mesmerizing, thanks to Stephen Hoye. —David Chasey

Publisher's Summary

Mark Kurlansky's new book takes us back to the food of a younger America. Before the national highway system brought the country closer together, before chain restaurants brought uniformity, and before the Frigidaire meant that frozen food could be stored for longer, the nation's food was seasonal, regional, and traditional. It helped to form the distinct character, attitudes, and customs of those who ate it.

While Kurlansky was researching The Big Oyster in the Library of Congress, he stumbled across the archives for the America Eats project and discovered this wonderful window into our national past. In the 1930s, with the country gripped by the Great Depression and millions of Americans struggling to get by, Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Writers' Project under the New Deal to give work to artists and writers, such as John Cheever and Richard Wright. A number of writers - including Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren - were dispatched all across America to chronicle the eating habits, traditions, and struggles of local people. The project was abandoned in the early 1940s and never completed.

The Food of a Younger Nation unearths this forgotten literary and historical treasure. Mark Kurlansky's brilliant compilation of these historic pieces, combined with authentic recipes, anecdotes, photos, and his own musings and analysis, evokes a bygone era when Americans had never heard of fast food and the grocery store was a thing of the future.

©2009 Mark Kurlansky; (P)2009 Tantor

What the Critics Say

"This extraordinary collection provides a vivid and revitalizing sense of the rural and regional characteristics and distinctions that we've lost and can find again here." (Publishers Weekly)
"Fun, illuminating, and provocative, this historic reclamation appears while we're in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the one Franklin D. Roosevelt fought [and] while we're grappling with a plague of unsafe food and environmental woes associated with industrial agriculture. But don't despair. Whip up Ethel's Depression Cake, and throw a bailout party." (Booklist)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

3.3 (52 )
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  •  
    Sparkly SF, CA, United States 09-11-09
    Sparkly SF, CA, United States 09-11-09 Member Since 2008

    interested in history, science, and pulp fiction

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    "Perhaps better in print."

    I am excited by the topic, and I enjoy anything about the cultural history or anthropology of food. This book was my special download for a week at an East Coast beach, and it turned out to be a strange choice.

    The first chapter (the history of the WPA in general, and the regional food essays in particular) was fascinating. But I found that once the audio veered into the recipes themselves, I kept falling asleep. I would awaken VERY HUNGRY, and having brown sugar, vinegar, ham hock, and a pinch of mustard on my mind.

    Positives - The recipes and stories are quite interesting. My favorite parts were the history of the clambake, and maple sugaring.

    Negatives - the audiobook is not suited to searching and using the recipes. It is very frustrating that the information is, for all intents, inaccessible to me as a cook. I use an iPod Touch - perhaps there is another format that is searchable, but it is in no way as useful as a paper text for experimentation in the kitchen. In addition, listening to lists of ingredients for ten hours was too much even for me, though by the end of my vacation I did finish it.

    On another note, I found that the author's choice of dramatizing Southern Black voices sounded really awkward, and I would have recommended some other strategy. (The author has, otherwise, a Northern accent.) I realize that there are many ways to approach this kind of thing in an audiobook - I just didn't think it was successful.

    11 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gene Bowker Duluth, GA 09-17-14
    Gene Bowker Duluth, GA 09-17-14 Member Since 2010

    Rusted Rail Images

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    "Great for history buffs and foodies"
    Would you listen to The Food of a Younger Land again? Why?

    Yes, I'd listen to it again as I'm sure there are parts that would sink in better on a second listen.


    What other book might you compare The Food of a Younger Land to and why?

    Any of the WPA writers guides to the states.


    What about Stephen Hoye’s performance did you like?

    Easy to listen to. Good pronunciation


    Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

    yes. I found the history of the project fascinating and a great way to learn about food history in the US. I'm surprised how many foods which were common in the late 1930s are unknown today and how much food in the US has become homogenized over the last 70 years.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    James Seattle, WA, United States 05-30-10
    James Seattle, WA, United States 05-30-10 Member Since 2009
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    "Food Critics and Lovers Of Food Will Love This!"

    I'm not a big food connoisseur but I found this book interesting ans full of information as to where some of our food taste originate from.

    If you like food and some history about where it comes from, you'll enjoy this read.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
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