Food Files from the WPA
The Faro Caudill family eating dinner in their dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico. October 1940. Photo by Russell Lee.

In this photograph by Russell Lee, the Faro Caudill family eats dinner in Pie Town, New Mexico, in October 1940 (Library of Congress). Click image for more info.

In the last years of the 1930s, the last years before interstates and industry turned America into one big, homogenized market, Depression-era writers went out to see what Americans were eating.

They went North, South, East and West. Today, their report reads like a wildly diverse national potluck of very regional, very vivid cuisine.

Spoon bread and burgoo, oyster stew and chicken bog, hush puppies and possum, Johnny cake and hoecake and rabbit and grunion.

This hour, On Point: What we ate before we all ate the same. We’ll read the great American menu — and tuck in.

You can join the conversation — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Joining us in our studio is Mark Kurlansky, bestselling author of many books, including “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” and “Salt: A World History.” His new anthology is “The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food – from the Lost WPA files.”

Also in our studio is JJ Gonson, a personal chef with a background in short order and home cooking. Boston Magazine named her “Boston’s Best Personal Chef.” She’s founder of Cuisine En Locale, based in Cambridge, Mass., and writes an eponymous blog, where she’s just written about food shopping and economies of scale.

In this video clip, Tom and our guests sample tastes of the ’30s…

Here’s our tasting menu for this hour. These are authentic 1930s dishes taken from Mark Kurlansky’s book.

Plain Maine Chowder
from the recipe of Mabel G. Hall, a Maine historian

– Ingredients: diced salt pork, onions, potatoes, water, salt, a very little bit of milk

Kentucky Wilted Lettuce
“Throughout Kentucky, and particularly in the mountainous area, wilted lettuce is certain to appear on the table of most every household that has a garden.”

– Ingredients: fresh lettuce, fresh green onions, salt, pepper, bacon, bacon grease

Arizona Menudo
from a description of an “Arizona Menudo Party” by J. Del Castillo

– Ingredients: beef tripe, hominy, salt, pepper

Depression Cake (far western U.S.)
from an essay by Michael Kennedy and Edward B. Reynolds, a cake born out of necessity by a woman preparing for a July 4 “picnic, rodeo, and general get-together”
– No eggs, butter, or milk.
– Ingredients: raisin water, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice, bacon drippings, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Nov 30, 2015
United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres, center left, Minister of the Environment of Peru and COP20 President Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, center right, and French Foreign Affairs Minister and COP 21 President Laurent Fabius, center, pose for photographers during a press visit to the COP21, Paris Climate Conference, site, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

World leaders converge in Paris for the big climate talks. We’ll look at what it will take to get a global climate agreement.

Nov 30, 2015
Shoppers walks in front of a holiday display Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015, in San Francisco.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

From Black Friday to Cyber Monday and beyond, we’ll add up the dollars and trends and bargains of the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Nov 27, 2015
The punk rock band Sleater-Kinney (from L: Janet Weiss, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker) (Courtesy the Band)

Feminist punk-rockers, the band Sleater-Kinney, is with us. Reunited. Hotter than ever.

Nov 27, 2015
Josh Baldonado, an administrative assistant at Brown & Brown Insurance, works at a treadmill desk in the firms offices in Carmel, Ind., Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. (AP)

The end of sitting at work. A new call to get up off our chairs. To stand and move! We’ll look at how that works.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Fresh Ideas For Your Thanksgiving: Recipes
Wednesday, Nov 25, 2015

Did our Thanksgiving 2016 episode make you hungry? Good news — we’ve got recipes right here.

More »
Karl Rove Still Won’t Get Involved In The 2016 G.O.P. Primary
Tuesday, Nov 24, 2015

Karl Rove may say he’s not endorsing or getting involved in the 2016 G.O.P. presidential primary, but that won’t stop from offering advice on how to beat Republican front runner Donald Trump.

More »
Roger Cohen And Barry Posen On ISIS
Monday, Nov 23, 2015

A brief, but illustrative exchange between Barry Posen and Roger Cohen during our conversation on ISIS today.

More »