As with everything else, there are foodie progressives and foodie reactionaries, and they look at the peanut-soup problem differently. Mark Kurlansky, the best-selling author of Salt and Cod, has a new book, titled 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 (yes, he's the reactionary). It's a collection of manuscripts from an unfinished Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project to compile local food customs into a book. Kurlansky presents a startling snapshot of our nation's culinary past: a country of squirrel and opossum eaters, where few recipes didn't include cornmeal, molasses or salt pork and ash was a totally acceptable spice. "All these things like hoecakes and this Southern kind of baking — I wish there was more of that," says Kurlansky of the U.S.'s disappearing dishes. "In the West, they had sourdough pancakes. Some of the local alcohols" — he stops to ponder the various homebrews of yesteryear and concludes, "We don't make enough booze in this country." Indeed, the Arkansan art of producing cherry bounce (cherry-infused whiskey) needs to return.
The files Kurlansky unearthed — some written by Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston — reveal a weirder, more varied country. "Food is just part of the regional culture that's getting neutralized," says Kurlansky. "When I was growing up, I could tell what part of Connecticut someone was from just from his accent."
Though Kurlansky has tried some of the recipes in his book — the still regionally popular Indiana persimmon pudding is a favorite — he admits that some of these old dishes aren't great. "For my taste, there's too much ketchup and canned food in these recipes," he says. "But I would have rather eaten in 1930. I like to eat food that tells me where I am. I do book tours, and every night I'm in a different place, and I wish I were eating a different kind of food, since I'm going to all this trouble getting on and off of planes. Chicago — I don't know what to eat in Chicago nowadays. They always tell you to eat pizza, which doesn't cut it."
Fortunately for Kurlansky, there's a new guide to help people venture off the culinary highway. Written by foodie progressives who savor Chicago's pizza as well as its beef sandwiches and chicken Vesuvio and scads of old-school offerings across the country, Jane and Michael Stern's 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late refers not to a diminishing American landscape but to the limited number of eating opportunities in our life spans. It's a bucket list of restaurants serving local, often obscure dishes, ranked cheerily from best to almost best. The Sterns' nation is one with at least a few places still serving the Kentucky burgoo (thick stew) Kurlansky dug up in those WPA files, as well as South Carolina perloo (meat-and-rice dish), Wisconsin hoppel poppel (meal in a skillet), Ohio sauerkraut balls and even the Vermont sour-milk doughnuts that Kurlansky longs for. The Sterns' America has endless varieties of hot dogs and dueling chowders. It's a land where men still gather to eat lamb fries, prairie oysters and other forms of animal testicle.