Radio Readers Book Club: Cross Country Recipes

Aug 9, 2017

Food of a Younger Land begins a cross country journey in food and story in New England. Shown here, a Nantucket clam bake is one of the region's culinary center pieces.
Credit Digital Commons / Massachusetts Commonwealth

Hello, High Plains Public Radio Readers!  I’m Paula Ripple from Dodge City, part-time cook, and lover of cookbook reading.  

Who doesn’t love reading cook books more than doing the actual cooking?  The Fall 2017 HPPR Radio Readers book choice, The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, takes us back to the 1930’s and the Works Progress Administration which provided work for writers.

In the Library of Congress, Kurlansky uncovered 1930’s essays and recipes written from sea to shining American sea.  The regions begin with the northeast, where directions for the Rhode Island clambake describe lining a hole with stones, setting and burning a wood fire until the stones “crackle at the sprinkling of water.”  Brush off the embers, then layer seaweed and clams, cover with a tarp.

Next time you travel to Block Island or Newport to see the cottages, you’ll be ready to join in.

Ahhh, but it’s the South where food rules all.  The secrets of hoecakes and barbecues reveal many approaches to cooking these southern staples.  But, plenty seems to be the order of the day.  “And what a mess o’ food Zack put on them planks!  They was stewed cow and barbecued; barbecued hog and great gobs o’ fat boiled.  They was such a waste o’ rations the pots was crowdin’ each other plumb off the table.”  Here’s a chance to learn about cooking squirrels and possums and chitlins’, not to mention hard shell crabs, soft shell crabs, catfish, and mullet.  Recipes for egg nog point out that the ratio of whiskey to eggs is 2 tablespoons of whiskey to 1 egg.

Perhaps to no Kansan’s surprise, the descriptions of 1930’s food in the state mimic our present-day preferences:  “A lover of beefsteak is Mr. Average Kansan, … The usual dinner consists of beef, potatoes, a salad, a side dish of vegetables, coffee and dessert.”  Other Midwest authors relate Sioux and Chippewa food traditions which included everything from deer to berries to roots and squash.  Apparently, Nebraskans enjoyed buffalo steaks, buffalo burgers, and buffalo barbecues.

The Far West section of The Food of a Younger Land tells of salmon brined in brown sugar water or salmon cooked on a stick, slowly, over an open fire.  The intrigue of geoduck, spelled g-e-o-d-u-c-k, which is not a duck at all, but a clam, sounds as if it’s a challenge to dig out of the muck. It's usually then made into chowder.  If you’ve ever wondered how to make depression cake, the recipe calls for water from soaking raisins, bacon grease, flour, and spices - no eggs, no milk - because none was to be had.

The Grunion are running in the final section of the book, The Southwest Eats, which also includes camp cooking for cowboys in Arizona; as well as Navajo, Choctaw, and Hopi food traditions, with the ever-present corn, used both symbolically and practically. Oklahoma pioneer eating offer this surprise:  “There were no flies in those days and we could kill a beef and cover it with a cloth to keep dirt away and hang it on the north side of the house and it would not spoil even in the hottest weather.”  That’s what it says!  Anyway, you don’t have to cook at all; you can just do what I love to do - read the recipes.