July 15, 2009
The United States is not usually credited with having a rich national cuisine. As the collection of WPA-commissioned articles in Mark Kurlansky’s book The Food of a Younger Land shows, however, the country does have quite an array of regional specialties and peculiarities, due in part to its size and diversity of both terrain and population.
The food traditions of the western part of the United States, as elsewhere in the country, often reflect the immigrant communities that settled there. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, Scandinavians brought lutefisk, a dish of dried codfish cured in lye. It’s cold-weather fare by necessity—the preparation requires the fish be left out for days—served up at holiday meals and church-sponsored suppers. According to Kurlansky, the tradition faded in the decades following World War II, but saw a resurgence in the late 20th century. Despite a funny anecdote about Wisconsin Norwegians forming a protective association to guard the suppers from Germans and Irish “invading the sacred lutefisk domains,” the writer of the essay confesses, “Nobody likes lutefisk at first. You have to learn to like it.”
The Midwest was also pioneer territory, and several of the articles in that section of the book refer to the foods that helped sustain the hardscrabble lives of the settlers: Nebraska buffalo barbecue (which is actually bison, Kurlansky explains, misidentified as its distant relative by the explorer Hernando de Soto in 1544); Montana fried beaver tail; and Illinois vinegar pie, developed to fulfill the craving for tartness when no fruit was available.
A piece written by novelist Nelson Algren, who went on to win the first National Book Award, in 1950, includes this amusing tale: “One legend has it that, on an occasion when an unusually long train of Conestoga wagons was crossing the plains of Kansas, it was found necessary to separate into two trains. With but one frying pan, and a single pot in the whole caravan, the division was accomplished by counting off those who preferred ash-cake to boiled dumplings. Those who preferred ash-cakes took the skillet; the ones who went for dumplings followed the pot.”
The section on the Southwest, while skimpier than the other regions’ chapters, includes one peculiar California tradition: the grunion run. The grunion is a type of sardine-size fish that comes ashore at night during spring and summer to spawn, creating a wriggling, silvery spectacle. When the grunion are running (figuring out when, and where, the event will occur is an inexact science), the fishing frenzy begins—in this case, “fishing” means grabbing the little suckers with your bare hands. At the time the article was written (pre-WWII) the fish were usually deep fried whole. Despite living in Southern California most of my life, I somehow never made it to one of these events, so I can’t confirm what today’s preferred grunion preparation is (or if it’s even advisable to eat anything that comes from certain L.A. beaches). But, based on the popularity of sushi there, I wouldn’t be surprised if the recipe included wasabi.
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