Mark Kurlansky on What America Eats

Examining the "Food of a Younger Land"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt decided that even unemployed writers needed to be put to work. So as part of the New Deal he created the Federal Writers Project and dispatched scribes to all corners of the nation to document, among other topics, food. "What America Eats" became a national compendium of what people were cooking and eating, region by region. Being a "locavore" is a fashionable lifestyle choice now. But in 1940 you ate locally because you had to—the lack of highways and freezers kept diners to a regional and seasonal menu long before it became chic. Notable writers including Eudora Welty who covered Mississippi meals and Zora Neale Hurston who tackled her favorite Floridian foods all weighed in on regional cuisine for the project. In his new book, "Food of a Younger Land," author Mark Kurlansky revives the unfinished America Eats project. He joins The Takeaway for a look back at the diet of a nation.

Click through for an Indiana Persimmon Pudding Recipe

Indiana Persimmon Pudding

(from The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky, published by Riverhead Books, 2009. This recipe was originally collected for America Eats, a WPA project; it was supplied by Richard McCurry of Bloomington, Indiana.)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1/4 cup of shortening
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 4 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cloves
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon of nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons of butter
  • 2 cups of seeded persimmons
Cream shortening, add sugar and beaten eggs, milk, flour, baking powder, salt; add persimmons after rubbing through a fine sieve, beat thoroughly and then add vanilla, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Beat well, then pour in greased pudding mold, cover tightly and steam for two hours in an oven at 300 degrees F., and serve with foamy sauce or whipped cream.

Cape Fear Johnny Cake.

(This recipe was originally collected for America Eats by Mrs. Edith S. Hibbs of Wilmington, N.C.)
  • 2 cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Milks or water for a soft dough
  • ¾ shortening, preferably half butter, half lard
  • A good pinch of baking power is now used sometimes
Handle as little as possible for mixing. Roll out ½ inch thick; spread over biscuit pan and bake in hot oven. Split while hot, butter generously and cut in squares for serving.

Oregon India Pickle

(This recipe was originally collected for America Eats by Joseph McLaughlin of Oregon’s Bohemia district.)
  • 12 apples
  • 10 ripe tomatoes
  • 9 medium onions
  • 3 cups vinegar
  • 3 cups sugar
  • ¼ cup salt
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
Combine apples, tomatoes, onions, and vinegar. Bring to a boil. Then add remaining ingredients. Cook until tender. Use for sandwiches, omelets, as a sauce for meat loaves, or with baked beans.


Mark Kurlansky

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