JJ Gonson, founder of Cuisine en Locale, was our visiting chef last week for our show on 1930s cooking and Mark Kurlansky’s new book, “The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food – from the Lost WPA Files.” (Listen to the show here.) Here’s a video clip showing JJ, Mark, and Tom tasting the dishes on the air, in our studio:
Afterwards, I asked her to share some thoughts about the show, including how she went about preparing the dishes. Here’s what she had to say:
When I was contacted by On Point last week, and asked if I might be willing to try to cook some recipes from Mark Kurlansky’s new collection of Depression-era writing about food, I probably made a bit of a fool of myself screaming, “YES!”
The truth is, I have loved every book I have read by Mr. Kurlansky (3 so far, I’m just half way through the fourth), and on top of that, I am a big NPR nerd, uh, I mean fan.
One and one equals “Yes, I want to cook Depression-era food on very short notice for On Point and Mark Kurlansky!”
We had little time and a lot to do, so quickly we scanned the many, many recipes for a selection from around the country that would make up a “Depression-era meal.”
Even though I really wanted to, I decided not to make Jonny Cakes, ruling against the super-popular Rhode Island dish because I didn’t know where to find flint corn. To be honest, I didn’t even know what flint corn was.
So there were no Jonny Cakes, and, just in case you were wondering, that is why. Some other time, I hope!
So, sans Jonny cake, we chose four recipes, and every single thing included pork fat, with the exception of the menudo, which was largely based on beef fat.
The first dish I tackled was the one I had the most fear of: from Arizona, menudo, or to put it bluntly– tripe.
My limited knowledge of Mexican-style menudo includes a lot of strong, hot flavors. Cilantro and lime, chilies and tomatoes.
This poverty version of the dish contained no such thing, but rather instructs on the boiling of small pieces of well washed lining of the cow’s stomach for several hours, followed by adding salt, pepper and hominy (a kind of corn). The only tripe that I could put my hands on at short notice was at a large Asian food market, and I am suspicious that it was already semi-prepared because it was very clean, and very white, and when I boiled it for four hours it melted down to practically nothing. Just teeny little unsatisfying bits of goo floating around in a rather pungent, oily broth with some lumps of hominy in it.
Honestly, I can’t imagine a better cliche of poverty food than this dish. People will learn to eat anything in desperation, and cows have a lot of stomachs, so the linings are very inexpensive if not particularly nice. An entire intestine being enormous, if you had the whole thing to tackle you could feed a large gathering — come one, come all. It is no wonder that menudo became southern border-town party food. I’m sure there must be more savory ways to prepare it. Or maybe I just got a sort of weak hunk of stomach. Hard to say.
The next dish we chose was a wilted lettuce salad from Virginia.
While still calling on a lot of fat, in this case bacon grease, this salad actually reminded me a lot of German potato salad, and sure enough, the roots of the dish most certainly lie in that old-time favorite.
To make this salad, what you do is make small cubes of about 6 slices of bacon per head of lettuce. Saute the diced bacon slowly in a flat pan to render all of the fat out of it, until the bacon bits are all tiny, brown and crunchy (yum…). Wash your head lettuce (I used red leaf, but you could use any similar garden lettuce) and cut it sideways, across the core, into pieces, then put it into the bowl you will wilt it in. Mix about 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar with the same amount of water, and have salt and pepper to hand.
When the bits of bacon are browned, and you are almost ready to eat, pour the whole pan of fat and bits over your lettuce, tossing the lettuce to cover it quickly. Some bits will wilt more than others, but the different textures are what make this a nice vegetable dish. Then add the vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste, and toss it well before serving. This salad doesn’t sit very well, so you might want to get it all ready to go and then actually make it right before dinnertime.
PLAIN MAINE CHOWDER
Third on our list was a potato chowder from the great state of Maine.
It is generally understood that chowder means a thick soup made with a lot of cream and butter, but pre-fridge those were commodity items, and this chowder has neither one. You can add, according to the piece in Mark’s book, “clams, cut fish or stewed corn; and at least a cup of milk,” but then it is no longer Maine potato chowder, rather something somewhat more luxurious.
To start, dice about 1/4 lb of salt pork into tiny cubes. Put them in the bottom of a soup pot and set them to rendering, which takes about half an hour. While they are cooking, peel and dice 4 white onions and 8 starchy potatoes, like Idahos. When the squares of salt pork have released all of their fat, and are small and hard, add the onions and cook them in the fat, on low heat, for 1/2 hour. Stir them occasionally to be sure they aren’t getting dark brown. You want them to be golden brown and fragrant as they provide most of the flavor to this soup. When they are cooked, add a cup of water first, then all of the potatoes, and then enough water to cover the potatoes with a bit to spare. Turn up the heat and boil the potatoes for another half an hour.
What is going to happen as you cook them is the starchy potatoes will begin to break down, and when they mix with the fat from the salt pork they will make a faux creaminess that is most deceptive! Believe it or not, even though you used salt pork, finish this soup with a good bit of additional salt and ground black pepper. Serve it hot, by the way, or it will separate and be rather less appetizing.
The last of our four dishes, Depression Cake, is the only one we chose from the book that was nearly a “recipe.” A recipe hidden within an excellent bit of narrative, actually. Summarized, the recipe is as follows:
Preheat your oven to 350 (that was my guess anyway, and it worked out fine).
Grease the inside of a tin cake pan with bacon fat and dust with flour
In a bowl mix well:
1 cup of water in which 1/2 cup of raisins have been boiled for 10 minutes and left in while cooling
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, nutmeg
pinch each clove, ginger and allspice
1 heaping Tablespoon bacon fat
In another bowl sift:
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
Add dry to wet
Mix completely and stir in
1 teaspoon of vanilla
Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes (That’s how long mine took – you might want to keep an eye on yours. The book just says that it is browned and risen and smells delicious, which it was, and did), or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean
Turn out to cool
We were all pleasantly surprised by this lovely cake. It is rather like a gingerbread, or a zucchini bread, and would make an excellent breakfast cake — especially if you enjoy a bit of bacon in the a.m.!
It was immediately fascinating to me, when I started reading Mark’s book, how the appearance of cheap refrigeration has changed the face of poverty food. Where once food expired quickly, or was preserved in what we might call unsavory ways (for example, by being coated in a lot of salt, or left to ferment) now we can keep it cold easily, making international ingredients readily available to nearly everyone.
The ability to keep food longer has encouraged industrialization and centralization of production, and has indeed made food less expensive and more available, but it has simultaneously taken away our understanding of where our food comes from, so that it can be processed and transported in ways that we might find just as unappealing as the concept of replacing butter with salt pork, if we were confronted directly with them.
Ironically, at a time when preparing food is easier and less hazardous than ever (if you think slaughterhouses are dirty now, imagine what they were like 100 years ago, or before. They have only gotten better!), most people live on a diet of nutrient-low prepared meals and fast food. The things that we keep in those wonderful fridges, and the freezers attached, are often so far removed from fresh, whole ingredients that they barely even resemble food.
While the food of the Depression was made up of some things that seem unpalatable to us now, it is not impossible that a Depression-era eater would find a chemical tasting, microwavable Lean Cuisine dinner just as off-putting as one today might find offal cooked in salted pork fat.
You can also learn how to navigate a farmer’s market with JJ at her “How2Heroes” channel.