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