Digging Up Forgotten Eats and Soda-Luncheonette Slang

Mark Kurlansky on the way we were.

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It seems impossible now to think that the government would ever pay a poet to investigate Waldorf salad, but in the early 1930s the feds’ own Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project predated the stimulus package. One cutting-edge administrator named Katherine Kellock hired out-of-work poets, writers and reporters to create regional travel guides, including one master catalog of what our countrymen—or women, more likely—cooked.

Kellock hoped to edit America Eats into a five-part regional compendium of foods of the then-48 states—still innocent of freeways, corporate chains and TV dinners. But, when the war came, writers like Nelson Algren and Richard Wright dropped out for better work and a byline, and the pieces of the project (most typed by hand on the silky paper called onionskin) were packed away unedited or, worse, lost to the file cabinets of time.

Until Mark Kurlansky—voracious author behind Cod: Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A World History, discovered the trove of treatises while researching a food-writing anthology. His new book, The Food of a Younger Land, culls the most interesting repast reports, many chronicling the eats of our very city, including “The New York Literary Tea,” “The Drugstore Lunch,” “The Automat” and “Dishes New York City’s Hotels Gave America” (that Waldorf salad). The uncovered decoder to “New York Soda-Luncheonette Slang and Jargon” made us want to fire up the time machine. Here are a few:

• I.R.T.: Lettuce and tomato sandwich
• Taxi Straight (aka “Hug One”): Orange juice
• Taxi One: Orangeade
• Jersey Cocktail (aka “Baby”): Glass of milk
• Southern Swine: Virginia ham
• Hebrew Enemies: Pork chops
• Burn the British: Toasted English muffins
• Blue Heaven: Bromo-Seltzer
• Jack Benny in the Red: Strawberry Jell-O
• 14½: A beautiful girl, a little on the plump side

Photo credit: John Vachon; Museum of the City of New York

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.