But the most striking difference of all was that in 1940 America had rivers on both coasts teeming with salmon, abalone steak was a basic dish in San Francisco, the New England fisheries were booming with cod and halibut, maple trees covered the Northeast and syruping time was as certain as a calendar, and flying squirrels still leapt from conifer to hardwood in the uncut forests of Appalachia. All of this has changed. It is terrifying to see how much we have lost in only seventy years.

To see that prewar America was a very different country, one has only to contemplate the origin of America Eats. To anyone who knows and understands the United States, the fact that there was a Federal Writers' Project at all seems nothing short of miraculous. This is America, the land with no Ministry of Culture, where politicians alone are portrayed on the money. Almost unique among Western republics, the likeness of not one writer, philosopher, painter, or composer has ever graced the engraving of a U.S. bill or coin. The separation of church and state may be the great articulated legal principle, but another sacrosanct concept is the separation of state and culture. And yet there was an age when the U.S. government permanently employed painters, sculptors, playwrights, musicians, actors, and writers to produce art.

Reprinted from 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 edited by Mark Kurlansky by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2009 by Mark Kurlansky

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