Land of the Lost Food Traditions, Part I — the Northeast

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There was a time in America when you might head to the local luncheonette for a bowl of soup and a root beer float, and the counterperson would shout your order to the cook, asking for a "bellywash and a black cow." Or, if you lived in Georgia, you and your friends might get together for a Coca-Cola party, where glasses of the soft drink were the main event—an idea that now sounds as quaint and ridiculous as having a napkin party, or an ice cube party.

So many regional food traditions have faded or disappeared in the decades since the advent of chain restaurants, frozen foods and other homogenizing "advances" in the way we feed ourselves.

The Works Progress Administration was established during the Great Depression to put Americans back to work. Even unemployed writers got in on the (new) deal, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Writers' Project. Promising young scribes, including Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston (who already had a successful writing career but was broke nonetheless), and many others of less notable talent, were tasked with documenting the eating habits of Americans. The America Eats project was abandoned after World War II broke out, and the unpublished manuscript was filed with the Library of Congress.

The Food of a Younger Land is one of two recent books to resurrect the nearly forgotten material. The other, Pat Willard's 2008 America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA—the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food, is described as a travelogue of a road trip she took to discover whether the traditions outlined in the project have persisted.

Kurlansky's book simply culls some of the most interesting contributions to the project, arranged by region, and includes brief introductions that provide some background or explanation. It's chock-full of amusing tidbits. For now, I'll share a few of my favorites from the Northeast section.

Walter Hackett wrote about Rhode Island May Breakfasts, an enormous feast served on May 1. "The credit for the local May Breakfasts goes to one woman who believed that in the spring people turn their thoughts to food," he wrote. The tradition started in 1867, and was borrowed from the English, who got the idea from the ancient Romans. Among the dishes served were cold boiled ham, cold chicken, mashed turnips, creamed potatoes, pickles, pies ("all known varieties"), doughnuts, fruit and coffee. And if that wasn't enough, there were also clam cakes, "for the hardy gourmet."

  • An article about dishes that originated in New York City hotels included Waldorf Salad, Lobster Newburg, and, to my surprise, Vichyssoise. The chilled potato soup was not invented in France, as I assumed, but at the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan.
  • The Automat—a "mechanical lunchroom" where you got single servings of food from coin-operated cubicles—was all the rage in New York City. The writer of this essay, Edward O'Brien, asserted that "the Automat will flourish so long as the average New Yorker remains what he is, a person who is everlastingly fond of dropping coins into slot machines, who loves good coffee, and who knows his cinnamon buns." The last Automat closed in 1991, although an updated version opened in the East Village in 2006.
  • In the introduction to a piece on Rhode Island Clam Chowder, Kurlansky explains that what we call Manhattan Clam Chowder, with a tomato rather than cream base, is actually derived from Portuguese and Italian cooks in Rhode Island. He writes, "Massachusetts people expressed their scorn for the Rhode Island tomato and clam soup by calling it 'Manhattan clam chowder,' even though it had nothing to do with Manhattan."
Check back soon for traditions of the South and West.

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