A couple of years ago, I read Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, which is a microhistory of… umm… well, salt. I assure you it is so much better than it sounds. Salt is some fascinating shit. In fact, I liked it so much that when I heard he had a book on pre-WWII regional food, I snatched it right up.
Then I let it sit on my kindle for ages because I was too busy to read it and I had too many other books I wanted to read more. And now I’m kicking myself in the ass because it’s really good.
The idea for The Food of a Younger Land (click the link to view on Amazon) began in the Great Depression. You may have heard of it. It was basically ten years of economic hell, unemployment, starvation – all that fun stuff. It lasted from 1929 until about 1939, but it wasn’t really until the war industry boom that things really turned around for us. And people who were affected by the Great Depression remembered that shit forever. It left an impact on them that never really went away. If you have a grandparent that won’t buy a band-aid to save their life unless it’s on sale and they have a coupon *raises hand,* they probably were alive during the Great Depression.
There were a lot of ideas on how to get us out of the Great Depression. President Hoover, who was in office at the beginning of the Depression, thought the best thing was to save businesses from collapsing and let money “trickle down” to workers. He believed in volunteerism and neighbors helping neighbors, and he felt that giving aid to the destitute was a bad idea because then they would lose their self-worth and it would discourage people from helping each other out. The people, in turn, built a shanty town outside of Washington DC and called it “Hooverville.” I guess that tells you what they thought of Hoover’s ideas.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, he had very different ideas on how to deal with the Depression. There is a lot of argument over whether FDR’s policies actually got us out of the Depression, or if the depression ended because of a commitment to deficit spending during the war, but either way, the assistance that FDR offered the American people undeniably made life during the Depression somewhat better.
FDR’s New Deal programs are large and complicated, and I’m not going to get into all of them here. You can thank me later. But I want to talk a second about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was prolly the biggest New Deal Project. The WPA basically put millions of people to work by finding a buttload of public works projects for them to do – building things like community centers, parks, swimming pools, auditoriums, and all kinds of other stuff. One branch of the WPA, Federal Project Number One, focused solely on encouraging cultural growth by employing people in the arts, producing creative works, teaching the arts, and preserving historical records (shout out to the WPA historians!). The Food of a Younger Land focuses on one part of Federal Project Number One, the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP).
Over its eight-year span (four years federally funded, and four years state funded), the FWP employed over six thousand writers. Zola Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, and Saul Bellow are just a few of the notable authors who worked on FWP projects. The most successful project to come out of the FWP was the American Guide Series, a series of guidebooks for travelers detailing the then-48 states in the U.S. After the success of the American Guide Series, the next large-scale FWP project was slated to be a series of books on local cooking, broken up by region. At the time, before the Internet, freeways, chain restaurants, and fast food joints on every corner, most of America’s cooking was homegrown, seasonal, and regional. The cooking series was meant to showcase regional cooking, give histories of local foods and recipes, and offer exotic glimpses into different, but still American, cuisines.
Unfortunately the bombing of Pearl Harbor put a stop to the plans for a regional cooking series. Unfinished, the notes, half-written manuscripts, and assorted collected information sat in a box in the Library of Congress for decades. Kurlansky’s book tries to make sense of those assorted notes and manuscripts that were submitted, and in doing so it offers a snapshot of American food right before our cuisine changed completely. Before the war industry gave us new ways to package and preserve now-“convenient” foods. Before highways connected us and spread regional fare nationwide. Before chain restaurants and fast food joints dominated our culinary landscape. And I gotta say, it’s pretty awesome.
So awesome that I decided it might be fun to try some of these recipes out. So, as I go through the book, wich will be slllooowwwwllllyy because I’m reading five or six books right now, I will occasionally make posts trying out some of the different recipes or foods in the book. These posts will be titled “Cooking the New Deal” because I’m not very creative. The first one I’m going to try, right now, is from the section titled “The Northeast Eats” in the subsection “Vermont Foods” and it is an Apple Pan Dowdy recipe submitted by Cora A. Woods.
There are two things you should probably know off the bat.
1. I hate cooking. I’m a shitty cook. I make no claims that I know what the hell in doing because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,
2. I have no clue what Apple Pan Dowdy is. I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like or taste like so try it at your own risk.
OK, this looks pretty simple. The first thing I need is a crust. Fuck, I don’t have any crust. Can I just buy one? No, that’s cheating. I decided that I’d use this crust recipe from “Simply Recipes.” They haven’t steered me wrong yet. I used the butter one because butter is delicious.
So I don’t know how many apples a quart is so I used about seven cups. I used Fuji because they were cheap are my favorite. At this point I was so pissed off because somebody had taken apart my apple peeler/corer/slicer and put it back together all wrong. And I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. And I am fat, so I was sweaty. But then I figured it out and had fun spinning the apples around. I made the recipe exactly like it was in the book, although if I make it again, I’ll probably halve the white sugar and add brown sugar because I like brown sugar.
In case you’re wondering, this is the Apple peeler/corer/slicer I have. I love it.
Fuckfuckfuck. The recipe doesn’t tell me how to fucking cook it. I don’t know what I’m doing. After guessing careful deliberation, I cooked the Apple Pan Dowdy at 375 degrees for about an hour. Then I chopped it up with a stainless steel knife and cooked it for about 20 minutes more. The recipe calls for a silver knife, but who the fuck has a silver knife just sitting around?
I’m assuming the lack of ice cream in the recipe was an unfortunate omission on the part of Aunt Hetty. I rectified that in the final product.
The verdict: Not bad. I’m still not sure how this isn’t apple cobbler. There was a lot of crust, which would normally be awesome because the crust is the best part. Except that I put too much water in my crust, so it was not very flaky. It needs more than a “dash” of cinnamon, and I stand by what I said earlier about the brown sugar. But overall it was pretty good. The husband, who is a bit of an apple pie snob, loved it. So I guess that makes it A-OK. If you decide to make it, it’s super easy. It’d be easier with a Pillsbury crust, though. Just sayin’.
If you liked this and want me to keep cooking, let me know in the comments. Otherwise I’ll have to find something else to amuse y’all. 😉
I’m off to bed. Good Night!