July 10, 2009
Of the regions of the United States profiled in The Food of a Younger Land, the South has probably changed the most since the 1930s and early 1940s. That’s when the articles covered in the book were written for the WPA’s America Eats project. Racial segregation was still the norm, and some people who witnessed slavery firsthand were still living.
As author Mark Kurlansky points out in his introduction to the book, some recipes and passages written for the America Eats section on the South refer to “darkies,” and the speech of African Americans was often presented in the vernacular, while white Southerners were quoted in standard English regardless of their accents and dialect.
Still, it is one of the most interesting sections in terms of food traditions, and contains the writing of two of the most celebrated writers to work for the project, Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston. Welty, who wrote about Mississippi foods such as jellied apples, lye hominy and mint juleps, soon went on to win the O. Henry Prize for one of her short stories.
Hurston already had a successful writing career, including the publication of her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but took a job with the Federal Writing Project after going broke. Despite her experience, she was given a low-level job because, according to Kurlansky, it was “unthinkable to place a black woman in a supervisory position over whites.” She wrote a short piece about a mythical land African Americans called Diddy-Wah-Diddy that was supposed to have endless amounts of good food, especially barbecue. Hurston wrote:
Its geography is that it is ‘way off somewhere,’” and it is ” a place of no work and no worry for man and beast. … If a traveler gets hungry all he needs to do is to sit down on the curbstone and wait and soon he will hear something hollering ‘Eat me!’ ‘Eat me!’ ‘Eat me!’ and a big baked chicken will come along with a knife and fork stuck in its side.
One article includes recipes from African-Americans in Mississippi, including an explanation of how Southern blacks made coffee out of ground persimmon seeds, blackberries or corn bran. Persimmons were also turned into beer, which sounds like something one of the microbreweries should investigate. Other pieces describe North Carolina chitterling (or “chitlin”) struts, where fried or boiled pig intestines were served with all the fixings—cole slaw, pickle, corn pone and hard cider—followed by a “shoo round strut,” or dancing.
A piece about Virginian foods includes descriptions of chess pie, a custardy dessert, and Brunswick stew, a hunter’s stew traditionally made with squirrels—or chickens, the author writes, if squirrels are not in season. Yankee/Californian that I am, I had no idea squirrels had a season. As Kurlansky explains, in the South, squirrels were (and to a lesser extent, still are) considered wild game. I know an urban gardener or two who wouldn’t mind if open season were called on the furry nuisances.
Check back soon to read about the food traditions of the western half of the United States.
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