It was called the Neolithic Revolution: the phase-out of foraging, the rise of farming. You maybe thought this was the advent of civilization. But certain anthropologists see it as the dawn of a nutritional Dark Age: Rice? Corn? Wheat? The Three Horsemen of beriberi and pellagra!
You don't have to reach quite that far back, though. The curtain began to fall on the the golden era of good eating, Philadelphia-style, posits historian William Woys Weaver, when the Caribbean pepperpots and wild oysters, the fresh catches of the rivers and the bounty of local farms, gave way in the face of a fresh crop of factories.
Enter, in 1902, Horn & Hardart's technological marvel, the Automat. In a city becoming the "Workshop of the World," Weaver writes, the time was ripe for industrialized eating, as well: "Freshness of ingredients, half the secret of fine cookery, was gradually replaced by mechanical convenience, down to the cherry pie, glossy with cornstarch, cut and ready to serve at the drop of a nickel."
So what that the local shad, oysters, and terrapin had been chased from the Delaware by factory pollution? Have another bit of pie?
Let us consider, then, yet another Golden Age, this one chronicled in the 1930s - not to romanticize the Great Depression, but because there was extra time to hunt and peck.
It is portrayed in the hitherto-unpublished dispatches of the Federal Writers Project, one of the New Deal stimulus efforts to put the unemployed to work - in this case, poets and authors, out-of-work teachers, and that most vulnerable and needy class of scribbler, newspaper scribes whose jobs were disappearing in the face of a newfangled craze called the radio.
Mark Kurlansky, who wrote a masterful little book titled Cod, has compiled those lost files in a new book due out this spring, The Food of a Younger Land. It is billed as "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." And so it is, and a tasty stew at that.
You can read of the mushroom boom in the "long, windowless, one-story oblong buildings" that dot the Chester County countryside outside Avondale, offering safer alternatives to mysterious wild species but facing the two-edged dilemma of progress - farm mechanization was imperiling the supply of its main source of nutrients, horse manure.
There are dispatches on Kentucky's mint-julep squabble: At the annual Colonel's Dinner, the correct way to make a julep is forever debated, the camps breaking down into the "do-crushers," who insist the mint should be bruised to unlock its flavor, and the "don't-crushers," who say float the mint unmolested, the better to savor its aroma.
And how to choose proper hog-killing weather along North Carolina's upper Cape Fear: "When the chill of fall has set in, and the new moon is on the rise." And the evolution of rabbit cookery on the Nebraska Plains. And vintage New York luncheonette slang ("baby," glass of milk; "A.C.," American cheese sandwich; "break it and shake it," malted milk with egg).
There is an essay on a mythical land far from the reality of the segregated South, where "a big baked chicken will come along with a knife and fork stuck in its sides."
The project (officially to be published as America Eats) never saw the light of day. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor a few days after its deadline. The dispatches were boxed up; priorities had suddenly changed.
Another golden era of good eating had come and gone, awaiting the return of peace and prosperity, the rise of the TV dinner, the fall of Wonder Bread, and the first sightings of French-roast coffee and estate chocolate and a sushi bar south of the Italian Market.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.