Of Arkansas Chicken* and Pot Wallopers**
I've been taking my time reading Mark Kurlansky's new "The Food of a Younger Land" (Riverhead), because it's history meant for rumination. The New York author spelunked his way through the Library of Congress and the N.Y. Municipal Archives and uncovered essays, musings and research material of some of America's greatest writers, tasked to chronicle "America Eats" as part of the Federal Writers Project (under the auspices of FDR's Works Progress Administration) in 1939.
The beginnings of World War II eventually shut down the writers' project before it was finished. So Kurlansky has done a menschy thing for Americans who really care about food, putting into circulation what might have been lost to the public consciousness. As we're reinventing and figuring out ways to eat better, now seems like a particularly good time for historical context.
Plus, the book has recipes that work. Check out the Depression Cake that was made in Montana and the chowders from Maine.
Kurlansky was in town last week at Politics and Prose; I missed what sounds like a very-well-attended gig, but he spoke with me this morning from New York. He says he's learned not to say that a particular dish or creation isn't around anymore; whenever he has made that statement in radio interviews, he says, "someone calls in from rural America and says it's still around." That goes for persimmon pudding made in Indiana and a Brunswick stew with squirrel made in Richmond. (In hard times, Americans apparently ate a lot of squirrel. Are we there yet?)
A "TFOAYL" chapter I was particularly taken with: a 4 1/2-page list of "New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon."
"It was never intended for publication," he said. "The list was just put together to inform the five writers who were covering that territory, and I stumbled across it by chance when I was researching my New York oyster book."
Some are borderline-offensive when read through a prism of political correctness. Some are funny and clever. You can almost hear a counter waitress barking these to the guy in the white T-shirt tending a greasy flattop grill.
Can you figure out what these might be? Translations are at the end of this post:
1. Yesterday, today and forever
2. Smear one, burn it
3. Nervous pudding
4. Watson, the needle
5. Make two look at me
6. One with dynamite
I can't wait to reveal that last one: It's Coca-Cola with ammonia spirits (not the household cleaning kind). While on his book tour in Atlanta, Kurlansky described the drink and said he couldn't imagine who or why this would be appealing to anyone. "And then a woman came up to me and said, 'I grew up drinking it. It tasted like vanilla.' Futhermore, she said they used to drink it when they pulled all-nighters to study. She said it worked liked speed," he says.
Okay, AWCE fans, don't get any big ideas. Google it, or better yet, get this book.
-- Bonnie Benwick
Key to the jargon listed above:
2. Order for toasted cheese sandwich
3. Gelatin dessert
5. Two fried eggs
* Arkansas chicken: Salt pork.
** Pot walloper: a cook.
Posted by: rashomon | June 15, 2009 11:41 PM | Report abuse
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