Conversation: Author Mark Kurlansky on ‘America Eats’

BY Arts Desk  May 13, 2009 at 9:15 AM EDT

Throughout the Depression, the Federal Writers Project employed hundreds of people to catalogue vital natural resources: New York oyster stew. Nebraska lamb fries. Alabama chitterling struts.

'The Food of a Younger Land' by Mark Kurlansky, Penguin Books
The ambitious New Deal project, called ‘America Eats’, employed secretaries and unemployed journalists, as well as literary luminaries — Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty — to research and write about the nation’s gastronomic traditions, from debate over mint juleps in the South, to differences between clam chowders in the Northeast. (The Federal Writers Project was also the first to complete a travel guide for every state — then only 48.)

In 1941, the project, which had suffered from organizational setbacks and reports of varying quality, was dealt a final blow: Pearl Harbor. With attention and government funding turned toward the war, the typed onionskin dispatches and recipes were relegated to archives all across the country. Some have never resurfaced.

In reconstructing the sprawling original “America Eats” files — part oral history, part anthropology, part community cookbook — there’s no better guide than food writer Mark Kurlansky. The insightful culinary and historical context in his new book, “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,” stretch even the most meager “America Eats” reports into a broader commentary on how America’s regional food traditions have changed.

'Oysters and a political rally, No.1', Anthony V. Ragusin, Library of Congress


In the midst of a national farm-to-table movement, special Art Beat correspondent Peter Smith spoke with Mark Kurlansky about the project’s origins, the economic stimulus plan that funded it and how the country’s food has changed since the advent of interstates, Jell-O and drive-through windows.

—Peter Smith is a writer and food columnist in Portland, Maine.