The Bat Segundo Show: Mark Kurlansky II

Mark Kurlansky recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #292.

Mark Kurlansky is most recently the translator of Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris and the editor of The Food of a Younger Land. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #220.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pushing past the patois of a forgotten linguistic formation.

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Subjects Discussed: Wanting to be Zola as a kid, thorough food research, the difficulties imposed by lawyers, racist patois, Don Dolan’s failure to understand the burrito, why so many unqualified people got jobs with the Federal Writers Project, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, manuscripts that were never intended for publication become published thanks to Kurlansky, investigative anthropologists, Coca-Cola parties, lost culinary rituals, Brunswick stew and the original recipe involving squirrel, Kurlansky’s obsession with recipes involving beaver tail, Vermont maple trees, “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners,” corroborating dishes and rituals that made it into the present day, the Nebraskan Popcorn Queen, trying to whittle down Library of Congress material for a book, food conflicts, regional gaps in the America Eats project, Kenneth Rexroth, Basque inaccuracies, Claire Warner Churchill’s extraordinary fury concerning mashed potatoes, World War II’s effect on the WPA, editorial oversight with the Federal Writers Project, geoducks, rarefied cuisine, drying meat over an open fire, hoecakes, low-class and slave forms of cornbread, an altogether different notion of Texas chuck wagon, sheriff’s barbeque, and the mint julep controversy.


kurlansky4Correspondent: First off, just a general question to tie in Zola with the Federal Writers Project book. In an introduction to The Belly of Paris, you confess that, in fact, you wanted to be Zola when you grow up. And this is very interesting because Zola, of course, was a serious investigator. And, of course, going through the endnotes of The Belly of Paris, I see all these references to sausage and meat, and simultaneously I’m thinking in terms of the investigations in this book, The Food of a Younger Land. I’m curious if you think that investigation of that particular time is comparable with Zola and the Federal Writers Project and whether you think perhaps that there’s something that is missing from that type of investigation today. What are your thoughts on all this? Just to start off here.

Kurlansky: Well, Zola was — especially as fiction writers go — a very thorough researcher. This book takes place in the Les Halles market. And he spends a lot of time in the Les Halles market and actually followed wagons from the entry of Paris to the Les Halles market. And when he did Germinal, he spent weeks and weeks in the mines with the miners. I don’t know how much writers do that now. I certainly do. And I think other writers must. Of course, there’s a lot of things where it’s getting more difficult in America to do these things. Because lawyers won’t let you.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah.

Kurlansky: There are all these legal issues if it’s a dangerous workplace.

Correspondent: Is this why the time of the past is better then?

Kurlansky: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have the statute of limitations.

Well, the concept of “proceed at your own risk” has been lost through lawyers. I’m married to a lawyer. I understand this.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kurlansky: I mean, part of the reason I admired Zola, outside of the fact that he was such a great writer, was that he had deep political commitments. And those commitments can be found in his writing. But his writing never descends into political diatribe. He always had it very clear in his mind that art was above that kind of thing. That in art, you could show society with all its faults, but you couldn’t rant about it. And, in fact, in The Belly of Paris, he has characters who he probably very much agreed with who he makes look ridiculous. Because they go into these rants all the time.

Correspondent: But in terms of this level of investigation, also in the anthropological folklore component of many of the Federal Writers Project’s writers, I mean, there is something interesting in reading an entry or an article in a particular dialect and essentially listening on the page to someone essentially listening a recipe. The question though is whether this is entirely accurate of the patois at the particular time or whether there are problems. I mean, you allude to a lot of racism that you uncovered and that you didn’t put into the book.

Kurlansky: Yeah, well, some I did. My original reaction was not to put any of it in. But since my whole idea of doing Food of a Younger Land was that I wanted to give readers the experience that I had when I looked through these boxes and accidentally falling into another time into 1940 America, and how different it was, and different in a lot of positive ways. And why cover up the negative ways? This was pre-civil rights South. Black people were referred to by their first name, comma “a Negro.” And a lot of the dialogue sounds like master and slave. And the black dialect is stretched to absurdity. To a point where it’s clearly racist.

(Photo: Lawrence Sumulong)

BSS #292: Mark Kurlansky II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #220. Kurlansky is most recently the author of The Last Fish Tale.

Condition of the Show: Moving forward after unexpected losses.

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Subjects Discussed: Mark Kurlansky’s wonderful dog, coming into Gloucester from an outsider’s perspective, possible solutions to global fishing problems, the close parallels between bottom dragging and the decline in fish stocks, ineffective methods of government subsidization, bycatch, intercontinental arguments over fishing, the problems with regulating fisheries, trying to find uses for excess fish stock, Gorton’s, bureaucracy and other political problems in Massachusetts, the clash between environmentalists and fishermen, the Elise vs. Bluenose race, downtown zoning and fishing, careful hotel development, chowder recipes, Moby Dick, Portuguese linguica, fishermen going out to sea without being able to predict the dangerous weather, the history of the schooner, various fishing technologies, oceanography, Howard Blackburn, Gloucester newcomers, ethnic groups and the granite industry, the Luminists and Fitz Henry Lane, Emile Gruppe, non-native Gloucester residents and art, Kurlansky’s illustrations, Motif Number 1, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s cut of Gloucester passages, balancing non-specific details about interviews with primary sources, and Kurlansky’s journalistic approach.


Correspondent: I’m wondering if it’s a matter of this obdurate Gloucester character that you allude to many times throughout the book. In fact, I was curious about the whole Elsie vs. Bluenose race. You actually write that essentially, they didn’t have time to deal with this great defeat. That they were more concerned with fishing. And in a desperate effort to determine whether this was true, I was digging through the New York Times archive and I found this particular quote from Captain Marty Welch in a 1921 article. He basically says, “I’ve no excuses. The larger boat won. The Elsie is as good as the Bluenose is, only she’s smaller. Give me a vessel of that size and I’d like to race her every day in the week.” So this seems to me either a sense of Gloucester bluster or perhaps a notion of some kind of pride. What is this exactly?

Kurlansky: Well, in that particular case — and it was a different era — you have to remember that schooners were invented in Gloucester. And they were invented as fishing boats. And so fishermen had this tremendous pride that they were the masters of schooners. And they became yachts. Today, the only schooners around — except for in a few museums — are yachts and for racing. So fishermen — and it’s the same thing with the environmentalists. “These aren’t real men of the sea. These are just rich guys who are playing around on these boats. We’re the guys who know how to handle a schooner.”

Correspondent: And then, on top of everything else, the Canadians decide to put the Bluenose on their stamps, their dime….

Kurlansky: On everything.

Correspondent: My girlfriend’s Canadian and I asked her about the Bluenose. And she gave me a slight grin. So I’m like, “Come on. Give the Gloucester guys something.”

Kurlansky: Well, Bluenose visits Gloucester. There’s a new…

Correspondent: The Bluenose IV. Yeah, I saw that.

Kurlansky: But one of the unusual charms, I think, of Gloucester is that it is very determinedly a blue-collar place. And it takes a tremendous pride in its blue-collarness. And it’s a community in which there are a number of extremely wealthy people. And they all get along pretty well. At least, they socialize. In a way, it is the classless society. Except that there is this tremendous awareness of class and the ethos of working-class people. You have to be aware of that if you want to deal with Gloucester.

(Please note: Due to current incompatibility between PodPress and WP 2.6, I have had to institute a workaround. If the player button does not work, then try the direct link to the MP3 below.)

BSS #220: Mark Kurlansky