Best-selling author Mark Kurlansky is well known for taking seemingly mundane commodities and transforming their history into vivid parables of empire and decline, heroism and villainy. Having taken close-up looks at oysters, cod, and salt, in his new book, The Food of a Younger Land, Kurlansky's vision sweeps over the American culinary landscape of the 1930s and 40s.
While sifting through thousands of documents that were born out of the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal jobs program, Kurlansky discovered the source material for an unpublished manuscript called "America Eats." Writers for the program -- such as Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, and Nelson Algren -- generated a mountain of pages on how the major regions of the United States ate in the years before World War II.
Their work documented recipes for obscurities such as beaver tail, wildcat, and geoduck; descriptions of festivals and informal culinary gatherings like North Carolina's "chitterling strut"; and competitive arguments over the perfect mint juleps. Kurlansky read through these papers and gathered the best and most interesting to create a snap-shot of a seasonal, regional and traditional America, where local culture was tied to local eats.
You found a lot of this while doing research for another book; aside from the intrinsic value of it, why do you think it was important to publish this now?
Here food is a time capsule to the 1940s. It was an interesting time. It was just before World War II completely changed this country, and the1930s were the beginning of industrialized food and a lot of other things. As the title says, it was the younger land that went away.
Do you see the beginning of industrialization in the automat, the early fast food chain in New York?
I loved the automat. I thought it was the greatest thing when I was a kid. I was always trying to get my parents to go there. But the technology was so un-technological. There were actually people behind there cooking. You put your coin in and you open the little door. They were like post office boxes. They have little windows and if you waited a hand would show up to fill in what you took. It's like "Whoa