THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
BOOK REVIEW

Depression-era chronicle shows a squirrelly food pyramid

Eating pie (probably made with a lard crust) sold at an auction in Muskogee County, Okla., are its baker (left) and the buyer. Eating pie (probably made with a lard crust) sold at an auction in Muskogee County, Okla., are its baker (left) and the buyer. (Sylvia Plachy)
By Jack Thomas
May 20, 2009
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If you live by the government's nutritional guidelines, you sat down this morning to a breakfast of protein and fiber - maybe juice, whole grain cereal, and low-fat milk.

If, however, you were rushed like a lot of Americans, you pulled into a fast-food franchise and ordered a muffin with egg, bacon, and yellow cheese - a meal with lots of sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, and zillions of calories.

Right about now, then, you're feeling a lot like your grandparents felt everyday, judging from "The Food of a Younger Land," a portrait of the American diet in the 1940s.

So, let's raise our glasses to author Mark Kurlansky for putting together a compendium of essays, poetry, short stories, and recipes that take us back, in a savory, scary, and sometimes funny way, to what Americans of an earlier era ate and why.

First, some history: In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated a $4.8 billion program to provide jobs for Americans, including writers who were assigned to chronicle their countrymen's eating habits. When World War II erupted, the writers' project was abandoned, and the food manuscripts sat in archives until Kurlansky resurrected them.

What Kurlansky serves is a five-course literary look at our culinary culture back in the days of two-lane highways, split windshields, and car heaters that sometimes worked. He takes us back to an era when the nation's food was regional, seasonal, and served without regard for nutritional standards.

What's in this book for you? Well, Julia Child advised us to surprise guests. So, for your next posh dinner party, shake 'em up with fried beaver tail. The recipe: Impale tail, hold over fire, and when fat softens, peel skin like a banana, fold in flour, and fry.

Among the more delightful essays is Eudora Welty's study of recipes culled from antebellum homes, including jellied apples from Port Gibson, Miss., a town General Ulysses S. Grant declared too beautiful to be burned. Welty provides an Arkansas recipe for a one-dish meal, Mulligan Stew: into a large pot, toss potatoes, onion, okra, red pepper, celery, salt, butter, water, and four squirrels.

Some essays are funny. From Oregon, Clair Churchill writes aghast that mashed potatoes are prepared with anything but a hickory spoon, and she describes the anguish she feels to be served potatoes beaten and mauled into what she disdains as the ultimate degradation to which an honest Irish potato must submit.

There's controversy, too. In baked beans, it's a faceoff between Nebraska and Boston, a silly mismatch, and in the Great Mint Julep debate, does one crush the mint, and if so, at bottom or around the rim?

One warning about this book: Your cholesterol level may rise as you read and contemplate collards fried in bacon drippings or Delmonico's lobster Newburg prepared in a chafing dish with large quantities of sweet butter, heavy cream, and the yolks of a half dozen eggs.

Chefs, hacks as well as professional, ought to add "The Food of a Younger Land" to their kitchen shelves, and in planning a future meal, take it down and ponder the possibility of preparing pig fries and or roasted wildcat.

Whatever you serve, though, honor your guests as Child always did, and once the possum or beaver is served, raise your glass respectfully and say the words softly, but pronounce them properly: "Bon appetit!"

Jack Thomas can be reached at jackthomas100@msn.com.

THE FOOD OF A YOUNGER LAND: A Portrait of American Food - Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation's Food Was Seasonal, Regional, and Traditional - From the Lost WPA files

By Mark Kurlansky

Riverhead, 397 pp., illustrated, $27.95

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