I am going to review a new food story and then go back to one not so very new. I read food books for four reasons, identical to why any of us read and collect these books. We read to be entertained, to be informed about people, places, and times, to collect recipes for future use, and formost to be inspired to hit the kitchen running with a new dish in mind. Cheat us of any one or more of those purposes and the food book is not worth the shelf space.
Mark Kurlansky edited and illustrated a book long on title 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. The WPA files Kurlansky used were the remains of a failed Federal Writers’ Project under Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration. The make work project named America Eats was closed down in May 1942 with the retooling of the nation from peacetime to war footing, before publication could bring shame to all involved. The material is a mishmash so inconsistent in veracity it is irritating to read. Kurlansky should have left it where he found it.
If you enjoy regional foods and regional food books then you will love John T. Edge, A Gracious Plenty: Recipes And Recollections from the American South, first published in hardback in 1999, and in paperback in 2002. Both editions are available from amazon.com sellers at reasonable prices. Even if the South is not your place you will enjoy the book. Edge writes on page VII, “the best cookbooks are storybooks, their purpose as much to document the communal draw of the meal table as to show the curious cook how to bake a gravity-defying biscuit or stir up a tasty kettle of Brunswick stew. When all the dishes have been cleared from the table, these recipes remain, a tangible link to a time, a place, a people.” Amen.
The Edge book comes from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and is drawn primarily from regional and community cookbooks with those spiral bindings that always catch the inside corners of the pages. If you come from a family that praised cooking then your mother, grandmothers, or aunts contributed to their church or club cookbook project. These are working recipes fully tested by family and pride.
Sometimes I sit down to go over the recipes in just one section whether Appetizers, Beverages, Breads, Salads And Salad Dressings, Sides And Vegetables, Soups And Stews, Meats, Poultry, Fish And Seafood, Sauces, Preserves Jellies Pickles, Desserts, or Menus. Or if I just want to enjoy the Southern story, the introduction, chapter headings, and shaded inserts read wonderfully on their own. My preference is to sit down with on goal in mind and flip through until something catches my eye and seems right for the day.
And finally whoever was responsible for selecting and tying together the photographs knows how to hang a good exhibition. Charles Marlin
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