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Radio Readers BookByte: Food of a Younger Me

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Hello, Radio Readers.  This is Valerie Brown-Kuchera, talking to you from Quinter, where it’s a typical western Kansas fall day.  This kind of day reminds me so much of my first fall as a college student at Fort Hays State University almost 30 years ago.  Up to that point, my experiences with food had really resembled some of those related in The Food of a Younger Land, our fall read selection this month. 

Although the book relates food experiences of Americans prior to WWII and predates my childhood by quite a ways, my own experiences really lagged behind those of my contemporaries because I grew up in a very rural area.   Maybe this is true of quite a few of the High Plains listeners.  As with many trends, the fast food and convenience food wave swept through this area later than it did more metropolitan places.  Like the eaters profiled in The Food of a Younger Land, I had never tried boxed food.  I had never even seen processed cheese that was encased in a cellophane wrapper.  Our cheese was purchased off the dairy truck in large blocks.  Many of my friends found it hard to believe that I hadn’t ever eaten at McDonalds or Burger King. 

As a first generation college student, the entire experience was incredibly daunting and exciting on many levels, and food was just one aspect of that explosion of novelty.  One particular experience that stands out occurred when I was living in the dorms and several of the girls were in the commons area making macaroni and cheese.  They asked if I wanted some, and I enthusiastically said yes, thinking, of course, of the noodles covered in creamy, whitish-yellow sauce made from grated hard cheddar and unpasteurized, cream directly out of our milk tank, bubbly in the center and crusty at the edges.  Just thinking about it now makes me rethink my low-carb diet.  When they brought me a bowl filled with bright orange macaroni, I really did think they were playing some kind of a joke on me.  I asked, “What is wrong with this?  Why is it so orange?  What did you do to this?”  They were puzzled.  “That’s what color macaroni and cheese always is,” one girl said.  It took me several eatings to come around to boxed Kraft mac-n-cheese, but I do like it now.

I’m so glad that Mark Kurlansky rescued these essays from the archives.  While we readers probably can never quite taste the food of that time, it’s so important to preserve those sensory memories.  I was, as you can imagine, most drawn to the sections about the rural middle west.  Geesh!  How many essays did Nebraska have?  At least Kansas got a share of the attention in that section.  While young people may not relate to cooking with all fresh ingredients and eating in the harvest field, I think some readers my age and older may.  We skimmed cream off the top of our milk to make coleslaw, just as the little girl and her mother did in “Cooking for the Threshers in Nebraska.”  My mother still uses the exact same ingredients to make baked beans as described in J. Willis Kratzer’s piece.  And I’ve sat in on many a meal served on planks across a sawhorse as described in “Kansas Beef Tour.”  I suppose The Food of a Younger Land really evokes memories of simpler eating in all of the regions it includes, in much the same way it did in me.  I’d love to read memories on our Facebook page from other listeners who found themselves reminiscing about foods from their own childhoods.

I’m Valerie Brown-Kuchera for the Radio Readers’ Book Club.  This is our 2017 Fall Read – Food and Story.  To find out more about the Radio Readers’ Book  Club, visit HPPR.org.  Or “like” us on Facebook under HPPR Radio Readers.