Monday, June 8, 2009

The Lost World of Beaten Biscuits

Our recent cultural obsession with fresh, local foods might naturally lead to an interest in the ways Americans used to cook and eat, before the supremacy of frozen and fast foods, before the reign of agribusiness was complete. Mark Kurlansky's recently published Food of a Younger Land, a collection of food writings produced by the WPA Writer's Project, provides some insight into the simpler days, when neighbors would gather to let maple sap run into the snow and then eat it, when clam bakes involved digging a fire pit on the beach, when squirrel was a viable ingredient in the dinner menu.

Because I have a tendency to buy old cookbooks at thrift stores and flea markets I found this collection more interesting for what it said about American culture during the 1930s than for what it said about our foodways. I already knew, for example, that any recipes to be found aren't standardized in terms of measurements, or even ingredients; before WWII, recipes were comprised more of guides and suggestions than instructions. I also knew that most recipes would begin with something along the lines of "Kill a chicken and bleed it good, then cut it up." Like vintage cookbooks, Kurlansky's tome is more useful as a glimpse into a mindset and way of life than as a tool for the modern kitchen.

Here's one example. Most pre-war cookbooks contain a section on "invalid cooking," to help produce not inedible meals or food that is not valid but to produce meals for the sick or elderly. This was needed for a culture before vaccines and antibiotics and over-the-counter medicines, where children were often sick, and for a culture before geriatric medicine and assisted living and nursing homes, where the generations lived together. I've also found several cookbooks that contain sections on "trailer cooking," with hints about how to prepare meals in the field, on the road, in the outdoors. This wasn't aimed at jolly seniors crossing the Sun Belt in RVs, but instead at those who lived itinerantly. A mass produced cookbook indicates a good number of Americans living this way.

The WPA food project was written by hundreds of writers in every state. Some participants were published professional authors, some were just people who needed a job, and the resulting prose is uneven. Kurlansky reproduces selections exactly as written, giving the text an authentic feel, and giving us a glimpse regional idiom and vernacular. The most notable thing about this book, though, the thing that ties together all the selections and resonates most in the contemporary world, is the nostalgia, the mourning for a world already lost. Again and again the anonymous WPA authors describe the way gatherings "used to be," the food mothers "once made," lament the customs that are "all but lost."

In the late 30s the interstate highway system had not been built. Packaged food was available, but not ubiquitous. Most people lived without a refrigerator, although a good number had an ice box. Frozen food was virtually unheard of. But already, the golden past was but a dream. Already lost were the meals of childhood. Begun in 1939, abandoned the week after Pearl Harbor, the WPA food project unltimately depicts a culture on the cusp of rapid change, and a culture that felt the tremblings of that change. Kurlansky's book is in a sense the last document of a world about to disappear. Read it: it's fascinating.

1 comment:

tunsie said...

I know 3 very good cooks.they never use a recipe or cups or tea/tablespoons 2 measure,when they r developing new dishes they use their sense of smell and taste 2 guide them.I eat very well.tunsie.tunsie.tunsie