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Radio Readers BookByte: The Politics of Cookbooks


Hi, I’m Paula Ripple, longtime HPPR listener from Dodge City, Kansas, and a new Radio Reader.  

Occasionally I’ll listen to BBC, and their piece on the politics of cookbooks, got me to thinking about Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky, the first book on the List for the 2017 Fall Read – Food and Stories.  This book which reprints WPA food writing from the 1930’s is replete with political incorrectness: conservation of nature is not a consideration in the report of a 20-pound per person limit of fish taken; cooks suggest eating squirrel pie, fried beaver tail, coon, bear, possum, and our widely known high plains calf fries; some southern conversations are recorded in broadly written black dialect.

The BBC piece mentioned cookbooks as public relations endeavors, as promoters of ideology, and as propaganda. I saw many of these political connections in Food of a Younger Land.

As for public relations, the regional writers of Food of a Younger Land certainly honed in on their traditional specialties, singing the glories of New England clam bakes, Vermont sugaring, Midwestern barbecues, burgoo from Kentucky, chitlins from Mississippi, and tortillas and tacos from the Southwest. They make it sound delightful:  The clambake begins with “[t]he hole in the ground with stones covering the bottom; the wood fire burned on top of the stones until…so hot that they…crackle at the sprinkling of water."

The promotion of ideology in cookbooks shows up in the Kurlansky book too. Multiple regions recognize the contributions of Native Americans and Africans to American cookery; however, the writing suggests the injured parties were happy to share. Little or no mention is made of colonists and pioneers butting their way into native lands or the enslavement of Africans.  

The final premise of the article about politics and cookbooks is that cookbooks are propaganda, a reminder of the positive traits of the area. I found that much of the WPA writing focuses on the charms of each of the areas. I loved this Alabama biscuit description: “My, but she is a kitchen magician! There is that about her ham which brings the delicious satisfaction of perfect culinary accomplishment. Her biscuits are never cut from the white dough in tiny wheels that make only a mouthful.  ‘Grandma Higgins’ rolls them with her hands; huge, feathery knobs that come from the wood stove soft and brown like golden nuggets of a Caesar.”  I want to make biscuits like that and I’m guessing many of the high plains cooks could match up to Grandma Higgins biscuits.

That’s Food of a Younger Land:  Biscuits, cookbooks and politics - unlikely skillet fellows!