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

(The Food of a Younger Land)

3.46  ·  Rating details ·  2,388 ratings  ·  406 reviews
A remarkable portrait of American food before World War II, presented by the New York Times-bestselling author of Cod and Salt.

Award-winning New York Times-bestselling author Mark Kurlansky takes us back to the food and eating habits of a younger America: Before the national highway system brought the country closer together; before chain restaurants imposed uniformity an
Hardcover, 398 pages
Published June 11th 2009 by Riverhead Hardcover (first published May 14th 2009)
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Jun 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cookbooks
The book cover says...."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". I was expecting a light read, with some humor thrown in - and I was blown away.

At the height of the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was developed to put many of America's jobless to work doing things such as building parks (Eagle Point Park with gorgeous Frank Lloyd inspire
Hot dog, this book was fun! It uses documents from the Federal Writer's Program(part of the WPA) to document regional American cooking after canning was introduced, but before fast food and frozen tv dinners became a way of life. I wish this book has been published before my father died. The first sections after the introduction are about Vermont and my father was born in Bennington in 1929. This is the food he grew up with. I remember him describing butternuts and stopped at elderly ladies' hom ...more
Jun 13, 2011 rated it liked it
This book is a pretty neat idea - publishing long forgotten works from the Federal Writers project . But, alas,, much of that work deserves to remain in the dust bin of history.

I did enjoy parts of the book quite a bit. A few of the vignettes, such as the Italian feed, are quite charming. Some of the recipes are hair-raisingly gruesome - Indiana pork cake, combining ground pork and molasses comes to mind as a prime example, though lutefisk is obviously a candidate as well.

Problems, however, alm
Oct 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Another analysis of the essays that were meant to be compiled into one project for the WPA. Compared to America Eats, this one goes into a bit more detail about the writers and the events and food they were writing about. There is no attempt to find things going on currently, as in AE. This just presents the material as it was found in the archives, organized as it was originally intended to be. There is some overlap with AE as far as the chosen essays, but not a whole lot.

As I said in my review
Sep 11, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food-and-drink
I'm tempted to give this 2 stars (I thought it was merely OK), but in the interest of fairness, I went with 3. After all, it's my own fault that I went in with different expectations. The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky ? I thought it would be a book by him about the history of food in the United States. Perhaps I didn't look too closely at the cover, where it plainly says:

"A portrait of American food - before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen f
Nov 28, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: food, history
So, way back during the Depression, did you know that the WPA also paid writers to write? One of their projects was to compile descriptions of regional foods and eating habits. The WPA disbanded before the project was completed, and the various drafts landed in the Library of Congress until Mark Kurlansky realized how badly they needed to be published.

I was a bit concerned about the size of the book -- a book 300+ pages long, full of unedited works has the potential to drag. Instead, the short
Jun 30, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: cooking
Parts of this were very interesting but parts were not so well done; not surprising since the editor just included portions of the WPA files which were never published. Astonishing to read what some people used to eat. :-) One beef--the editor said that the Midwest had lost all connection with its regional food. Perhaps if one never ventures out of Omaha or Chicago or Kansas City. But lots of people out in the "real Midwest" still make their great-grandmother's potato salad recipe or fix pumpkin ...more
Claire Hall
Mar 29, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
“The Food of A Younger Land” provides an interesting glimpse at a United States not all that far in the past, but one that seems very, very far away. The materials for this book were generated by the Federal Writers Project (FWP) seventy years ago—a time still within memory for tens of thousands of Americans. Yet the food landscape of the land has changed immensely, due in large part to improved technology and transportation and the spread of restaurant chains.

Kurlansky’s introduction provides a
Jul 20, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, audio-books, food
Back before eating locally was trendy, it was a necessity. In Depression-era America, one of the WPA projects for out-of-work writers – including Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston – was the documentation of regional food traditions. The bombing of Pearl Harbor cut the project short, and the unedited manuscripts were sent to the Library of Congress where they gathered dust for many years.
Fast forward several decades, and enter Mark Kurlansky (author of several outstanding books tha
Dec 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: food-writing, travel
If you love food and love history and maybe also have a short attention span you will love this book. Mark Kurlansky is one of the best authors at books on food history and he did a spectacular job researching and writing Food of a Younger Land.

On the surface it may seem like an easy book, gather articles that were written for the Writers Project of America (one of the works projects around the time of the Great Depression) and put them into book form by the region where they were created.

Apr 16, 2009 rated it liked it
Spotty is the kindest word I can use to describe this patchwork quilt of a book, drawn from source material gathered by FDR's Federal Writer's Project during the heyday of the Great Depression. It's great fun for the most part. Kurlansky's section and piece introductions are wonderful, of course. Eudora Welty's piece is, well, Eudora Welty. There are some passages from the Deep South that read as shockingly racist today. There are passages that make one understand how we have abused our fisherie ...more
Lisa of Hopewell
Nov 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
My Interest

The subtitles says it all for me: A portrait of American food from the lost WPA files. In the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration, a jewel in the crown of FDR’s New Deal, gave work to my paternal great-uncles that involved big, heavy shovels, and gave work to all sorts of other outside the skilled trades. These included artists and writers. The Federal Writer’s Project, best remembered for the outstanding Baedeker-type guides to each of the then 48 states. Among the wri
Dec 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Food of a Younger Land provides a fascinating glimpse back in time to the American of the 1930s (and earlier). The book, which is comprised primarily of original, unpublished manuscripts collected as part of a WPA project in the late 1930s and early 1940s (last submissions: December 11, 1941) is essentially a glimpse of what and how Americans ate in the opening decades of the 20th century. The impetus for the government collecting this information - and the project lasted for nearly a decade ...more
Jan 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
I’m ashamed to admit I dropped my Kansas Folklore class in college. In some ways I think I was too young to really appreciate the topic, but in other ways I enjoyed it too much. Or I enjoyed it in the wrong way, rather. It was fascinating and fun, not academic, so I listened and read with rapt attention but never really took notes or consolidated my learning, and when it came time to take tests over facts and details I realized I was totally unprepared. To preserve my GPA, I dropped it halfway t ...more
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
It is necessary to read this book's introduction, which explains that the short essays in the book come from a trove of unpublished reports done for the WPA in the late 1930s. When World War II intervened, the project was abandoned and never completed or published. The editor of this book has dug into dusty archives to retrieve these varied accounts of what people were eating in different parts of the USA in the 1930s. The book has a scattershot feel because, after all, it really was a work left ...more
Dec 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Reading about food this time of year is somehow always cozy and I enjoyed this way more than I thought I would. It’s a portrait of how Americans ate prior to WWII, divided up by regions according to the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. The New England and Southern sections are pretty robust and were my favorite sections. The last couple regions in the book weren’t as detailed as the Northeast and South but that’s more owing to how the project was run in those regions at the time. Not every ...more
Apr 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a great book to turn to in bits and bites and for repeat reads. Kurlansky puts pieces in helpful context, so each read is a combined lesson in and journey to another kitchen in another place and time. Excellent for readers who like to learn about history by reading of the real lives (and meals) of people who lived it. Also helps put a lot of our current food climate in the USA into perspective, as so much of our abundance, variety, and the standardization of them is (relatively) recent.
Feb 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Took me forever to get through, but ultimately really enjoyed it. Would recommend if you’re interested in American foodways and/or like reading vintage cookbooks.
May 11, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, library
This is going to be a difficult and probably rather contradictory review for me to write.

Did I like this book? Yes. Did I want to put it down 200 pages ago? Yes. See what I mean?

Okay, first of all, the idea of this book is really cool. I'm sure everyone has heard of and knows a little bit about FDR's New Deal. Well, part of that New Deal was the Federal Writers' Project, which would create jobs for writers. The FWP's most successful endeavor was probably the travel guides that they published f
Jun 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating book, made all the more so by things that would normally detract: there are redundancies and errors and omissions, and the writing is uneven. But when you understand why it's like that -- because the included essays/recipes/poems were all collected as contributions for the WPA's planned but never produced "America Eats" book -- they serve to make it all more interesting. So glad I stumbled across this! ...more
Jul 15, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, food
I first heard about the book when the author was interviewed on NPR and while I was interested in the topic (the subtitle is long enough to make description almost overkill – “A Portrait of American Food Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal”) I was particularly intrigued by the story behind the papers he describes - planned but never executed WPA writing project America Eats.

The book consists of a selection of t
Prima Seadiva
3.5 stars.Excerpts from the Federal Writers' Project created during the Depression by FDR. The project America Eats was abandoned in 1940.
Fairly interesting. Some sections were better than others depending on the original writer. My least favorite were the "folksy" guffawing down home sections . Maybe it wasn't fake but it was annoying. I most enjoyed the sections where meals and events were described. One of my favorites was a description of the threshing season and the meals farmwives would pr
Iowa City Public Library
The Food of a Yonger 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 is a fascinating compendium of what Americans ate in the 1930s. The book is edited and illustrated by Mark Kurlansky, best selling author of Salt : A World History and Cod : A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World among many other titles. In The Food of a Younger L ...more
Dec 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2016
The Food of a Younger Land is a look at pre-WWII regional food in the United States. Kurlansky took a series of articles and recipes written under the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) and compiled them into this gem of a book. These were articles and recipes intended for a project called America Eats but was abandoned around the time World War II broke out. The book is regionalized into the Northeast, South, Middle West, Far West, and Southwest areas of the US ...more
Mary Molinaro
May 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Very interesting look into American life in the 1930s through the food of the country. Food at that time was very regionalized - that was before any chain restaurants. One could only get certain foods in certain places. These stories and recipes were collected by writers in the WPA era Federal Writers' Project. After the writers completed the American Guide Series they moved on to a project entitles America Eats. The manuscripts were to be turned in to the editors around Thanksgiving 1942. Short ...more
Aug 03, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: food-wine
This book is an excellent social history of the eating and cooking habits of America in the period before and including the 1930s. Kurlansky didn't write this, he edited the raw manuscripts from the 1940 Federal Writers' Project of the WPA, rescued these essays, recipes, and poems on food, cooking, and eating, from their Library of Congress oblivion, and wrote the introductory material.

While the social history aspect is fascinating (there is not even a mention of wine until you get to the Southw
Nov 17, 2017 rated it did not like it
This was an ambitious project and I commend Kurlansky for attempting to take it on, but the material simply didn't make for a good book.

Kurlansky's vignettes (which appear at the beginning of many of the WPA "author" segments) are often fun, mostly informative, and always well written.

The same cannot be said for the WPA essays that serve as the bulk of the content here. Most are droning and have little appeal outside of a niche audience. In many cases, the writing is so bad that they're rendered
Christopher Newton
Takeaway: we're better off today. That home-cooking was a brave attempt at making meals out of a few ingredients used over and over. People weren't eating their veg because there wasn't any except in the summertime - or out of a can. Thai, Italian, Mexican -- all unheard of foods, except in the Southwest for Mex. Chinese food meant chop suey. Meat and potatoes, and lots of it, cooked very plainly - that was the order of the day. The book is a collection of regional essays originally planned to b ...more
Aug 20, 2009 rated it liked it
I love the idea of this book. An abandoned WPA project discovered and researched by Kurlansky, then published virtually untouched with essays added by Kurlansky himself. And it is interesting to see how regional foods came into their own. But the book becomes dry at times, due in large part, I think, to the fact that these essays were published in their original form, which in the best case were hastily completed and, at worst, simply a listing of ingredients. But I feel the book's true merit li ...more
Matt Lennert
Feb 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2009, food
A fascinating use of the national archives, which Kurlansky uses as archive material to tell the story of a pre-connected America through regional recipes and ingredients that might delight or disgust you. Possum anyone? For certain, you will be riveted to the book and understand the social history of America a bit better.
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Mark Kurlansky has written, edited, or contributed to twenty books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages and won numerous prizes. His previous books Cod, Salt, 1968, and The Food of a Younger Land were all New York Times best-sellers.

Other books in the series

The Food of a Younger Land (6 books)
  • The Food of a Younger Land: The Far West Eats Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Northern California, Oregon, Washington
  • The Food of a Younger Land: The South Eats
  • The Food of a Younger Land: The Southwest Eats New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Southern California
  • The Food of a Younger Land: The Northeast Eats Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York City, New York State, Pennsylvania
  • The Food of a Younger Land: The Middle West Eats Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota

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Ciannon Smart has been holed up in her England home since the pandemic began a year ago, but by no means has she been idle. She’s been on...
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“This journey by time capsule to the early 1940s is not always a pleasant one. It affords us a glimpse at the pre-civil rights South. This was true in the raw copy of the guidebooks as well. The Alabama guidebook copy referred to blacks as “darkies.” It originally described the city of Florence struggling through “the terrible reconstruction, those evil days when in bitter poverty, her best and bravest of them sleep in Virginia battlefields, her civilization destroyed . . . And now when the darkest hour had struck, came a flash of light, the forerunners of dawn. It was the Ku Klux Klan . . .” The Dover, Delaware, report stated that “Negroes whistle melodiously.” Ohio copy talked of their “love for pageantry and fancy dress.” Such embarrassingly racist passages were usually edited out, but the America Eats manuscripts are unedited, so the word darkies remains in a Kentucky recipe for eggnog. In the southern essays from America Eats, whenever there is dialogue between a black and a white, it reads like an exchange between a slave and a master. There also seems to be a racist oral fixation. Black people are always sporting big “grins.” A description of a Mississippi barbecue cook states, “Bluebill is what is known as a ‘bluegum’ Negro, and they call him the brother of the Ugly man, but personal beauty is not in the least necessary to a barbecue cook.” 1 likes
“Literary Teas are constantly in a state of flux. The uninitiated gravitates toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink.” 1 likes
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