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BOOKS: Deeper than ‘you are what you eat’
Question of the Day
CATCHING FIRE: HOW COOKING MADE US HUMAN
By Richard Wrangham
Basic Books, $26.95, 309 pages
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
By Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books, $27.95, 397 pages
REVIEWED BY PHILIP KOPPER
Forget the trope "you are what you eat." Two new books demonstrate that cuisine is what made us human in the first place, and in the second, that the stuff we took as proverbial mother's milk is what made us variously Yankees and Carolinians and Cajuns and whoever else inhabits, or inhabited, this sweet land of culinary liberty.
Take the somber volume first. In "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human," Harvard academician Richard Wrangham posits a wonderful idea, articulates it to a fare-thee-well and wrestles it to the ground. In its most elegant and digestible state, his thesis is this: The earliest of our ancestors to differentiate themselves from other primates stumbled upon ways to improve natural food, started eating differently than their cousins and evolved smartly because they learned to cook. (We are not talking cordon bleu yet.)
Controlling fire was the first step, the primo mobile. Tractable fire provided heat and light at night, which kept wilder critters at bay, made its possessors less vulnerable to predators and kept them warmer, alive longer. Once these divergent primates got comfortable around hearths, the fat was in the fire as bits of meat and veggies got cooked by accident. They smelled good, tasted better and nourished more.
Cooking plants and meat made their food more digestible and nutritious so that our progenitors needed less and could eat it faster. These proto-people were gradually freed from having to spend most of their waking hours chewing shoots and leaves like gorillas still do today, so our kind could find better ways to spend our time. We could start to learn to knap sharp rocks into knives, coax the wandering wolf into becoming a useful watchdog, sew animal pelts into garments against the cold and explore places beyond the equatorial savannah and invent boats perhaps — ways like that.
As our diet became richer, we gained evolutionary advantages. Teeth and mouths changed. The proto-human gut — everything from the esophagus down — became relatively smaller because it didn't have to work as hard as the baboon's. In relative metabolic terms, more blood could go to the brain and, thus, that crucial organ got a boost.
Mr. Wrangham builds his thesis carefully. He starts by proving a corollary: Modern man cannot live on raw food alone, an inability shown empirically by various food faddists and proved by scientific studies. It follows that if most of our food must now be cooked, that diet-digestion protocol marks an evolutionary difference from our divergent cousins. Eating more cooked food over time caused anatomical, digestive and metabolic changes that made us a new species. Ecce homo!
In essence, the academic thesis with the snappy title shares its central idea — that food made us who we are — with the lighter encyclopedia with the endless subtitle. (See above.) In "The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food … from the Lost WPA Files," the heart of the matter lies in the last two words.
Mark Kurlansky, author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World" and "Salt: A World History," found new fish to fry in the bowels of the Library of Congress. That's where the files of the Works Progress Administration went when our entry into World War II transformed America's domestic agendas in an instant and put the WPA out of business.
The New Deal agency, one "unique in American history," put people to work during the Depression and, extraordinarily, created jobs for people in all walks of life. WPA's Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project and Federal Theater Project kept thousands of professional artists in harness. Its Federal Writers Project became a veritable publishing house with an editorial office in every state where editors thought up book projects and hired local literates to write them.
Some created irreplaceable archives when they recorded the oral histories of former slaves. Others made a piecemeal portrait of American history, culture and traveloguery in the landmark series of guides to the states. When the war shut down the WPA, the Writers Project was on the verge of publishing America Eats, a region-by-region Baedeker of national gastronomy. Hurrying out the door (many of them into uniform), the editors left rooms full of manuscripts in various stages of editorial undress, some by the likes of Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Kenneth Rexroth and Nelson Algren. It is this midden of manuscripts that Mr. Kurlansky minced, coddled, simmered and tossed into a toothsome melange.
Its overarching message is enviable. America was a smorgasbord before our melting pot reduced everything to gray gruel. Immigrants of different origins brought distinct cultures and food habits with them, then found new arrays of food resources. American cooking became an infinite buffet of tastes, staples and delicacies. To compare its potpourri with today's coast-to-coast menu of blandissimo is enough to make a gourmand cry.
Mr. Kurlansky's selections and commentaries make a wide-ranging, informative anthology that is best dipped into rather than read straight through. As a cookbook it is less successful, given the conventions of 1930s "receipts" that overlooked standard measurements and step-by-step procedures. An Arkansas recipe for squirrel mulligan (i.e. stew) calls for four squirrels along with "whatever other vegetables are available" and instructs "if there are more or less squirrels the other ingredients vary accordingly."
There are Rhode Island jonnycakes with nary an H, which must be made with flint corn or corn meal, and the floury Cape Fear Johnny-Cake, which sounds like a biscuit under an alias. There are Christmas feasts at Brown's in Louisville and an account of Charles Delmonico's invention of Lobster Newburg, which might have been named Homard Wenberg for the seafaring patron who brought in the idea, but he got unruly and was banished from the eatery.
The exotic elements are most revealing and entertaining, ditto the rustic narratives such as an Alabama road so sinuous "that a mule pulling a wagonload of fodder can eat off the back of the wagon as he goes." In Oklahoma, prairie oysters were tossed right into the branding iron fire to roast in the ambers and in Montana, a writer provided the only description I have ever read of how to dress beaver tail. So "chacun a son gout" as a Louisiana chef might say and in an Acadian cook's reply, "bon appetit."
• Philip Kopper cooks, eats and evolves inside the Beltway.
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