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Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains

Wall Street Journal columnist Scott McCartney says summer travel will be cheaper this year. McCartney pens the Journal's weekly column "The Middle Seat."

19:48

Other segments from the episode on May 28, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 28, 2009: Interview with Scott McCartney; Review of Mark Kurlansky's new book "The food of a younger land;" Commentary on the reality show "American Idol."

Transcript

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Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is still under the weather. I’m Dave
Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in.

If you were about to plan a summer trip that involved air travel, it
would be worth your while to take our guest, Scott McCartney, to lunch.
For years, he’s covered the airline industry for the Wall Street
Journal, where he writes a column about air travel called The Middle
Seat.

He knows just about everything there is to know about finding travel
bargains and about managing your trip, from check-in to baggage claim.
He shared much of his wisdom in a new book called “The Wall Street
Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity
and Wallet Intact.”

Last year, McCartney warned us that summer travelers would face higher
fares and longer flight delays. We invited him back to see if the news
is any better this year, and he’s happy to report it is.

Well Scott McCartney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write that this
summer, travel will be smoother and cheaper than in recent years. So why
the good news?

Mr. SCOTT McCARTNEY: (Author, “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power
Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity and Wallet Intact”): I
think two reasons. The main reason for the smoother is that airline
capacity is way down. We have greatly reduced congestion at airports, in
the skies. That’s improved the air traffic control functions and reduced
delays.

Cancellations are down, long delays are down. Just in general, the
system is running better. And cheaper is obviously the result of the
economy. It’s very much a buyer’s market. While airlines have reduced
capacity tremendously, it’s still not enough, and they’ve had to really
slash prices.

So for people who want to travel this summer, you know, I think there’s
some pent-up demand. Last summer, we had high gas prices that really
discouraged people from spending money on vacations. For the years
before that, we had great travel disruption and delays that created all
kinds of problems.

So this is the first year in a number of years where things are looking
pretty good for summer travelers.

DAVIES: Now a lot of folks, I imagine, are looking for slightly cheaper
vacations, given the economic uncertainty in many lives. Does that leave
bargains in some places more than others? I mean, are people more likely
to fly within the country, meaning that there’s cheaper fares overseas,
for example?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Absolutely. The travel sellers, the Travelocitys and
folks who track booking patterns, say that domestic destinations are
more popular this year. So there have been more bookings this year to
Minneapolis or Salt Lake City or San Francisco; Seattle, Washington -
nice, you know, domestic vacation destinations.

That has created lots of opportunities and some other factors, too.
There’s been a huge increase in capacity between Australia and the
United States, and so fares have come down dramatically in those
markets. You can get some great deals there.

Fares are way down to Europe. Just this week, and here we are after
Memorial Day, into the summer travel season. We looked at fares for July
to Europe, and some were as low as $528 round trip, including all the
taxes and fees. That’s – you know, I’ve never seen that in my lifetime.
It’s quite remarkable that you would see prices that low. Last year may
have been $800 to $1,000 higher at this time to book a ticket to Europe.

I’ve been a big advocate of Europe this year because the European
economy is weak. The dollar is stronger. It’s a good time for Americans
to go. And you can get luxury hotels in European cities, you know, as
low as $100. It’s – and if you want really sort of extreme bargains, the
place that’s really on sale right now is Mexico, and the Caribbean.

And interestingly enough, beach destinations saw bookings decline before
the flu outbreak. The travel sellers had said, you know, those places
were just out of favor before. It wasn’t where people were spending
their money.

DAVIES: I was going to ask you about hotels and rental cars and other
parts of your travel experience. You write that you can also get add-ons
because, you know, the airlines and the hotels are hungry. So you can
get that upgrade, you know, of your seat or, from a hotel, some theater
tickets or free meals or some other things like that, right?

Mr. McCARTNEY: That’s right. With hotels, one of the popular things has
been to offer extra nights: book three nights, get a fourth night free,
things like that. That actually works to the hotel’s advantage because
it allows them to keep their posted rates maybe a little bit higher than
they would have to otherwise, and they really want to try and keep the
posted rates as high as they possibly can.

So the add-ons have become popular - show tickets if you’re going to Las
Vegas. Particularly if you call a hotel and ask, you know, what kind of
extra package they can offer, you can really come up with a good deal.

DAVIES: Now this brings up an interesting subject, which is how you go
about asking for more when you’re on the phone with a reservations
person or a hotel clerk because, I mean take me. I mean, I can be pretty
aggressive when I have to as a journalist, but you put me on the phone
with somebody who I assume is reading rates off a card or a computer
screen, and I don’t exactly - how to say well, gee whiz, can you give me
a free dinner or some show tickets. How do you broach the subject?

Mr. McCARTNEY: You know, it’s interesting. The airline industry is
completely automated. The people you talk to really have very little
latitude to do anything like that for you. It’s all a matter of what you
pay, what you’re willing to pay, what your status is, when you’re going,
all of that, driven by computer.

The hotel industry still is quite the opposite. The desk clerk when you
check in does have the authority to upgrade you to empty suites if
that’s the case. If you get through to the hotel’s reservationist, not
the sort of central 800-reservation center, but the person in charge of
reservations at the property themselves, they do have great latitude.
And I think the way to ask – I’m a big believer in asking nicely and not
being sort of the aggressive, demanding, you know, what-are-you-going-
to-do-for-me kind of thing.

You know, find a way to say is that the best price you can offer? Hey, I
saw this rate on the Internet. Can you do any better? Or, you know, your
competing hotel is offering an extra night if I stay for three nights.
Can you match that? Different things like that.

DAVIES: Well Scott McCartney, one of the things that we talked about
year ago was the way airlines have discovered a thousand new fees to
charge you, you know, for bags or seat assignments or all kinds of
things. As they are now competing more for passengers, are they backing
off on that, or is the fee mania expanding?

Mr. McCARTNEY: No, the fee mania is expanding. We’re seeing some
increases in fees for this summer, five dollars here and there on
baggage fees. We’re seeing more and more fees for different services. I
think fees - in airline executive offices, fees have been very popular,
and they’ve really made a major difference in the economics of the
industry. And so with the notable exception of Southwest Airlines, which
has tried to market itself as the no-hidden-fee airline, I think for the
most part, passengers have sort of begrudgingly accepted the fees. They
hate them, but I think to some extent they understand what’s going on.
And you know, they – you may not like paying the toll when you drive
down the toll road, but you’ve got to get there, so you’re going to pay
it.

DAVIES: Now you’ve been talking about how fares have been falling, as
you know, it’s a buyer’s market for fliers, and I’m wondering what
happens if I booked my flight in February and now discovered that I
should have waited and could have gotten a much better deal.

You know, some retailers, you know, will offer deals: If you can find it
cheaper, we’ll match their price, or pay you half, you know, double what
you overpaid. Are airlines or travel services doing any of that?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Airlines do do that, some do. Some do it as long as you
pay the change fee. There’s a great Web site to help with this called
yapta.com - it’s Y-A-P-T-A. And Yapta will track a price for you. You
can put your itinerary into Yapta, what you paid, when you’re going,
what flight you’re on, and Yapta will track the prices on that
particular flight and shoot you an email alert when the price drops.
It’ll also tell you if you qualify for any sort of refund from the
airline.

Some airlines will refund – most airlines refund in terms of a voucher.
It’s pretty rare these days when anybody will send you cash, but the
vouchers, you know, can be valuable. Some deduct the change fee. So if
the price drops $200, and the change fee is $150, then you get a voucher
for $50, not a bad deal. It gives you some, you know, some insurance,
kind of like the retailer, not as good as the 30-day money-back
guarantee kind of thing, but the way prices have fluctuated, it is worth
checking.

The other useful thing about Yapta that I like is you can track prices
before you buy. And so if you’re unsure, you’re looking at particular
flights, you think the price may drop, you don’t want to be – you know,
prices change seven times a day. You don’t want to be constantly
checking airfares. Use Yapta to automatically check for you.

DAVIES: Scott McCartney writes The Middle Seat column for the Wall
Street Journal, where he also covers the airline industry. We’ll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Scott McCartney.
He covers the airline industry for the Wall Street Journal and writes
The Middle Seat column there about air travel. He also has a new book:
“The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your
Dignity, Sanity and Wallet Intact.”

Well Scott, I wanted to talk about some of the tips you have in this new
book. It seems like it’s sort of a compendium of all of the inside
knowledge you’ve accumulated over the years. So apart from this season,
when the deals are good for fliers, speaking broadly, you talk about
things like there are cheaper times to fly. If you want to really fly
cheaply, when should you try and book your trip?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, you should generally try and book in advance. We
talked before about the advantages of booking late this summer, but
generally in advance and generally try and fly mid-week or Saturdays.
Those are the days of lowest demand on airlines, Tuesday, Wednesday,
Saturday, typically the cheapest prices.

If you, you know, put Friday at 5 p.m. or Monday at 9 a.m. into your
search for your airfare, you’re going to end up with higher prices. So
choosing the day, choosing the season obviously matters, and being
flexible.

One of the nice things about the Internet is it’s given people lots of
power to search, to do searches that we never could have imagined. So
you can search for the cheapest price over a 30-day period at a number
of different Web sites, and that’s really quite handy.

DAVIES: Now, can you get a cheaper deal if you actually do your search
or make your call at a different time of the week?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah, I think you can. Typically there’s a rhythm to the
way airlines do their pricing. They typically will load fare increases
in the computer systems on Thursday or Friday, typically Thursday, to
see if other competitors will match over the weekend.

By and large, most travel is bought during the week because so much of
it is corporate travel. So sales are lower on the weekend. That’s when
airlines can jockey around with prices and see if they can get
competitors to go along with price increases.

If you buy on the weekend, that price may be higher, may actually roll
back on Monday or Tuesday, and you would have lost out. So I think
Tuesday is typically a really good day to buy travel because it’s
unlikely that there will be fare increases floating around.

DAVIES: Now you also write that there’s something called ticket
consolidators, which might get you a real deal. Explain that.

Mr. McCARTNEY: Well, ticket consolidators are companies that take
distressed inventory from airlines. Think of it as the outlet mall for
the airline industry. Airlines don’t want to – there may be routes where
airlines know they’re not going to fill the plane at their posted
advertised prices. They don’t want to reduce the price because that may
trigger a fare war with a competitor. So they give seats to
consolidators to sell at below-market prices.

The consolidator protects the airline because they don’t advertise the
price with the airline’s name attached. So in theory, competitors don’t
know about those low prices, and the integrity of the airline’s pricing
structure gets protected.

You can get great deals through consolidators. You can see the ads in
the travel sections of Sunday newspapers, or you can go online and just
search for airline ticket consolidators. There is a consortium, the
American - Consolidator’s Association, that posts different members who
sell tickets, and I think while the savings can be great, you give up
quite a bit.

You often don’t get frequent flyer miles with consolidator tickets. You
often don’t get things like advance seat assignments. And the real
danger is if something goes wrong, you are at the bottom of the totem
pole in terms of getting re-accommodated by the airline.

I’ve heard many travel horror stories from people who missed their
connection and had to wait a couple days to get to where they wanted to
go because there’s a standby basis and because they’re on a consolidator
ticket they have no status at all. So everybody else gets accommodated
before they do.

DAVIES: You know, it’s interesting. As I listen to you, and you describe
all of the different factors that go into airfares and hotel fares, and

all the information that’s out there that you can access and the deals
that you can get if they’re really good, if you take the time to check
them out - it just gets exhausting to me.

Mr. McCARTNEY: Yeah.

DAVIES: And it makes me feel like I have to become my own travel-
research think tank, and it makes me think that there would be a great
market for somebody who would do all that for me that might be called
like a travel agent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Is there a new role for travel agents here?

Mr. McCARTNEY: Well I think – yeah, I think it’s the same role that it’s
always been. I think good travel agents do provide a tremendous service
for lots of people. For lots of people it makes sense: pay the travel
agent to do this for you. That’s essentially what it is, and the travel
agent will charge you a fee.

I do think the industry would be far better served if it made it easier
for people to actually use its product. I think, you know, one of the
reasons why airlines struggle so much is because it’s a very complex
transaction. And you look at all the rules and restrictions - one of the
fun things I did in the book was reproduce just the fare rules off of an
American Airlines ticket, just the penalties and cancellations, and it’s
all spelled out, even what happens if you should die before you travel.
There are very specific rules on what happens to the ticket, and it goes
on and on and on, thousands of words on rules and restrictions. And
compare that to Southwest Airlines’ most-restricted rule, and it’s seven
sentences, one paragraph.

You know, which company really is more eager to sell you a ticket? I
think the easier airlines can make it for people to use the product, the
better off they’ll be.

DAVIES: What about food? Do you buy in the airport and bring it onto the
plane? Do you eat first? Do you buy on the plane?

Mr. McCARTNEY: I think any of those are fairly good options these days.
It’s interesting. Airlines are actually in the process of trying to
upgrade their food offerings because they’ve been selling food and
haven’t been making any money, and it’s sort of occurred to them that
maybe if they offer something better, more people will buy it. Let’s
hope that’s the case.

Buying at the airport is good. If you’re going to bring something from
home, just remember you can’t bring liquids through security. So pack
your sandwich or whatever, that’s okay. And buy your water or soda once
you get inside security.

You know, food is important because you never know when you’re going to
get stuck in a very long delay. You know, you may get a nice captain who
calls up Dominos and says, you know, send 15 pizzas to Flight 12 sitting
on the tarmac, but that’s not likely and not something you can count on,
and so - particularly if you’re diabetic or have some kind of issue, you
have to take care of yourself.

DAVIES: Scott McCartney covers the airline industry for the Wall Street
Journal and writes a column called The Middle Seat. His new book is “The
Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel.” Let’s listen to this track
from bassist Jay Leonhart(ph), his ode to plane travel. I’m Dave Davies,
and this is FRESH AIR.

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Summer Travel Outlook: Sunny, Chance Of Bargains

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking about summer travel with Scott McCartney, who covers the
airline industry for the Wall Street Journal and writes a column about
air travel called The Middle Seat. He shared some of his accumulated
travel wisdom in a new book called "The Wall Street Journal Guide to
Power Travel: How to Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet
Intact." McCartney says because airlines have reduced the number of
flights and are still struggling to fill seats, travelers can expect
fewer delays and lower fares this summer.

Any advice on just getting ready and getting to the airport? Do we still
need to be there, you know, an hour to two ahead of time? Are there any
tips you can offer there?

Mr. SCOTT MCCARTNEY (Travel Writer): I think it's good practice to be
there an hour ahead of time. You know, there's still uncertainty over
TSA security lines. That's the main thing. TSA has gotten more
dependable on that, but you never quite know. And the other thing is,
the airlines have cut off baggage earlier and earlier. So if you don’t
get there within, you know, 30 minutes of departure at some airlines,
they’re not going to put your bag on the airplane. I think in general it
really pays to prepare. You know, it's sort of like, going to the
airport is a little bit like going into battle these days.

I'm a big believer in flight ORD systems. You could sign up for email.
My favorite is flightstats.com, f-l-i-g-h-t-s-t-a-t-s. Flightstats will
send you gate changes, delays; they have multiple sources of
information, not just the airlines, but also FAA computers and other
things. And I can get word of a problem or delay with my flight while
I'm sitting at the gate long before the gate agent ever gets the word.
Sometimes that can make the difference between being first in line to
get re-accommodated or, you know, and knowing that I'm going to be an
hour late and I can call the hotel or make other arrangements.

DAVIES: Really?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah.

DAVIES: You’re sitting there at a gate and you know before the gate
agent?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: I've actually been on a plane with a colleague, sitting
on a plane, and got alerts on my BlackBerry about delays before the
captain or the other passengers even knew. And it's pretty simple. A new
takeoff time is posted in the FAA computer and, bam, here comes the
flight stats, and by the time the information sort of winds its way
through the airline operation center and is radioed to the captain or
sent to the captain on his computer, it's, you know, and by the time he
gets around to announcing it, it’s, I've told my colleague, you know,
we're not leaving until 9:00 p.m. And then, you know, 15 minutes later
the captain announces we’ll be leaving at 9:00 p.m.

DAVIES: You are the Jedi knight of air travel, you know that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well it's, you know, it really goes back to the notion
that you have to take care of yourself when you travel. You can't expect
the airline to do it. You know, the old days of you go to the airport
and the nice airline will take care of you, put you up in a hotel room
if you get, if the flight gets cancelled or there's a weather delay, I'm
a big believer in carrying hotel phone numbers, either the chains or
even if you’re making a connection in a city, have some local airport
hotel phone numbers. The way things are going in the business, if
there's a weather problem and your flight gets cancelled, you’re on, you
basically have to take care of yourself.

The airline may give you a discount voucher for a hotel, may have some
inventory of hotels that you could pay for. But basically you're on your
own and it may be the difference between a cot at the airport or getting
a hotel room, if you can get on - get on your cell phone and make a few
calls and find a room yourself.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk a little bit about the state of the airline
industry. You know, after 9/11, I guess three of the four largest
carriers went into bankruptcy. Have they recovered? Are we going to see
more of this now that the recession is biting into revenues?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah. At one time half the industry was under the
protection of a bankruptcy court, and today that's not the case. If the
recession continues, airlines have suffered large losses and I think,
you know, some of them, cash is running out the door and some of them
may end up, or at least one of them may end up back in bankruptcy. It's
interesting. The state of the industry compared to other industries,
other industries that typically struggle in recessions, is really not
all that bad. And there are two reasons, one is airlines got a
tremendous shock last summer when oil prices ran up so high. And so they
went about slashing capacity tremendously.

Then by the time they got the planes out of their schedules, oil prices
had started to come down. But they continued with the cuts, and that
turned out to be wonderful timing for them for the recession, because
just as traffic was really dropping off, they were cutting flights and
had done a much better job than they'd ever done in past recessions of
getting the timing right. It was wrong reason, right result.

And the other thing that’s really saved the industry is, and passengers
hate to hear this, are the fees. Fees are producing hundreds of millions
of dollars of revenue for airlines, and that's really been one
difference between sort of mucking along and incurring losses that they
can tolerate - at least so far - and you know, being in line for the
next federal bailout. It's a kind of joke that it's rare to see such, so
many federal bailouts and not have airlines with their hand out.

DAVIES: Our guest is Scott McCartney. He writes the "The Middle Seat"
column for the Wall Street Journal and covers the airline industry. His
new book is "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel." We'll talk
more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're speaking with Scott McCartney.
He covers the airline industry for the Wall Street Journal and writes,
"The Middle Seat" column. He also has a new book about how to travel
smart. It's "The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to
Arrive with Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact."

You know, I have to say, it's so discouraging to hear you say that all
of these fees for baggage and seat assignments, etcetera, have made the
airlines healthy because it seems to me like it's simply going to
encourage every cell phone company and other company to, you know,
impose these nickel and dime charges that we just don't see coming. It's
kind of a discouraging thing.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah, you know, it really does. There are two kinds of
fees. There's the fee that logically makes sense, where you’re getting a
service and you get some value for the fee. And then there are the fees
that are completely illogical and simply punish travelers. I mean one of
the most common fees is the cancellation fee or change fee on a
reservation. An airline charges $150 on a domestic ticket, as much as
$250 dollars on an international ticket, plus the fare difference to
make a couple of keystroke changes. It's really sort of, you know, how
can you abuse your customer more than that? And then there are the fees
that, you know, US Airways has a choice seat program.

They're trying to charge extra for seats in the front of the airplane.
You know, the advantage of being in the front of the airplane is, well,
you get off the airplane faster, but I'm not sure that's worth, you
know, 20 or 30 dollars to most people. If you’re - you know, United has
the Economy Plus section where you pay more to sit in a seat that gives
you five inches extra leg room. Well, that's something of value. A lot
of people will appreciate five extra inches of leg room and pay for it.
They get something for the fee. The airline is not just taking something
routine and trying to create a new fee to slap on it.

DAVIES: You know, you've written recently that the Transportation
Security Administration, you know, which governs security at airports,
may be forcing a lot of us to change our names? What's that all about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, TSA is moving to a more specific system of checking
names against the watch list of terrorists. You know, there's been a lot
of trouble with the watch list check. And the problem is, terrorists
have a nasty habit of adopting aliases that are common names. So some
terrorist somewhere uses the name John Martin at some point or Robert
Smith and all of a sudden all John Martins and Robert Smiths find
themselves getting searched extensively and hassled by TSA.

Congress has been pushing for this, the 9/11 Commission pushed for this,
and what’s happening is TSA is going to require you to make your airline
reservations in the name that is either on your drivers license or your
passport. So for example, Scott is my middle name, and for years and
years I flew under Scott McCartney, which is the name I most often use,
but that became and is about to become even a bigger hassle, so I've had
to change my name. And as far as the airlines know, I'm now Robert, and
I make my reservations as Robert. I've had to change my name on my
frequent flyer program.

It's a bit confusing for my employer, and you know, other things. But
basically your name is going to have to match your passport and a lot of
people don’t do that. Now, TSA is also going to start requiring airlines
to collect some other bits of information about you, your gender and
your birth date. And there will also be a provision if you were a Robert
Smith who was hassled and went through the TSA’s, what they call a
Travelers Redress Program, where you send in all of your personal
information and try and prove you're not the Robert Smith who was the
terrorist, they will give you a clearance number, so to speak, and
you'll be able to use that number when you make your reservations, and I
think that'll be a great benefit to the people who have been hassled by
the name problem. But for I think many people who may fly, you know,
just using their initials or using, you know, not being specific about
your name, you’re going to have to be a lot more specific.

DAVIES: Okay. Well Scott McCartney, it looks like you've got plenty more
to track as we move forward. Thanks again for speaking with us.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Oh, it was great to be with you, Dave.

DAVIES: Scott McCartney covers the airline industry for the Wall Street
Journal and writes a column called The Middle Seat. His new book is "The
Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel."
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Old Food, Old Land

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Writer Mark Kurlansky is known for his best selling accounts of how
lowly foodstuffs have affected world events. Among his best selling
books are "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," and
"Salt: A World History." In his latest book, Kurlansky acts less like a
food historian than an Indiana Jones-type archeologist. In "The Food of
a Younger Land," Kurlansky unearths a forgotten government treasure
trove of recipes and eating traditions to take readers back to pre World
War II America. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

CORRIGAN: Forget the red state/blue state divide. Back in 1940, America
was sliced, diced, and Balkanized among those citizens who thought
nothing of chowing down at cafeterias called automats and those who dug
into a big pot of Squirrel Mulligan, between folks who celebrated
special events with Cocoa Cola parties and those who went wild over
fried beaver tail.

In that golden age before America was colonized by the Golden Arches,
American food was regional, seasonal, and homemade. Depending on who was
doing the cooking and where you were pulling up your chair, you might be
treated to a bowl of Maine baked beans or forced to slurp your way
through a Wisconsin lutefisk supper. These and many other often dubious
dishes are chronicled in Mark Kurlansky's fascinating new book, "The
Food of a Younger Land." An unexpected byproduct of taking his
gastronomical time travel tour is that it dispels the assumption that
regional, seasonal and homemade always implies healthy. The
aforementioned lutefisk for instance, is a traditional Scandinavian way
of turning cod fish gelatinous through the use of lye. Yum. Nine years
ago, when Kurlansky was doing research for an anthology of food writing,
he says he stumbled upon the dusty archives of the America Eats project.
An undertaking of the Depression era Federal Writers’ Project, which was
a wing of Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA. The Federal Writers’ Project
provided employment for over 6000 out-of-work writers.

Among them, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston and Nelson
Algren. During the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project produced those
now classic guidebooks to all 48 states. But by 1939, it needed another
assignment. That’s when Catherine Kaylock(ph) the director of the
program, came up with the idea of a guide to American food and eating
traditions, which would shed a light on everyday American society. A
great idea but America Eats was never completed. The deadline for all
copy was Thanksgiving week 1941.

The writers, of course, dragged their heels and then Pearl Harbor and
the start of World War II blew America Eats out of the water. The rough
copy, typed on onion skin that writers across the country had sent in to
Washington was boxed up and shelved. In an introductory essay about the
America Eats project, Kurlansky says the boxes constitute an untouched
paper trail into the past and claims that these unedited essays offer a
more authentic taste of pre-war America than the smoothed out final
product might have done.

Certainly not all the essays here are savory to our modern palate. In an
eggnog recipe from Kentucky, for instance, African-Americans are
referred to as darkies. And Kurlansky also unearthed correspondence
about whether Jewish cooking traditions should be cut from the final
project because they were not truly American. In “The Food of a Younger
Land” Kurlansky has selected some of the most interesting rough copy,
including eating rituals, recipes and even poems about food, and grouped
them according to the proposed America Eats plan in five broad regional
categories.

All together, the pieces Kurlansky has collected here constitute a
marvelous Goulash of gastronomical oddities and antiques, a remembrance
of tastes and customs past. I know I’m biased but the essays about
grazing in New York City made me yearn for the luncheonettes and
drugstore counters of yore that had faded away by the time I was a kid.
Here are some selections from an entry on New York Soda Luncheonette
slang and jargon. An order for toasted English muffins was Burn The
British.

Soup was belly-wash and strawberry jello was mystifyingly called Jack
Benny in the Red. “The Food of a Younger Land” is a tasty time capsule
of pre-World War II America. But beyond that, it’s a tribute to the work
of hundreds of mostly forgotten writers and to a federal project that
once put a lot of those hungry writers to work.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
She reviewed, “The Food of a Younger Land” by Mark Kurlanksy. Coming up,
rock critic Ken Tucker reflects on, “American Idol.” This is FRESH AIR.
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'American Idol': A Retrospective

DAVE DAVIES, host:

A new American Idol was crowned last week. Kris Allen won in what was
considered an upset victory over Adam Lambert. Their contrasting images,
Allen, the smiling boy next door versus Lambert, the musical and image
risk taker, got rock critic Ken Tucker watching and thinking about the
competition in ways he hasn’t before.

(Soundbite of song, “Black or White”)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) My baby on a Saturday night. Yes
were one and the same. Now I believe in miracles. And a miracle has
happened tonight. Oh, but, if you’re thinkin’ about my baby, it don’t
matter if you’re Black or white. Ooh, yea, yea.

KEN TUCKER: Depending on which season of it we’re talking about I
usually consider “American Idol” either a waste of time or the spawn of
the Devil. I don’t cotton to a show that evaluates pop music voices in
cliched critical terms. Too many “Idol” performances either condemned as
quote unquote “karaoke” or praised as masterpieces. I also have little
use to a competition that by its painfully conventional standards of
pitch, tunefulness and image would never have allowed say Little Richard
or Bob Dylan or Kurt Cobain into its top 40 finalists, let alone hand
him the top prize.

But now that Kris Allen has become our new “American Idol” I find myself
thinking all of the more about the runner up, Adam Lambert. I started
watching him during the final months of the show when hardcore fans had
made his name unavoidable in casual conversation. At first, I had a
typical reaction to someone who is doing something different. I was
baffled by his performance. All those winks at the camera, those lip
curled sneers, those tight leather outfits. Who did this guy think he
was, the 1968 Elvis? But then my indignation melted away and I became
fascinated.

His confidence was unlike anything I had seen on “Idol” or for that
matter from anyone since Bruce Springsteen, probably the last top tier
rocker who still thinks music can unite the country. But Adam Lambert is
of course no gruff, man-of-the-people type. His ever changing spiky
haircuts, his heavy eyeliner, and his light leather bondage ensembles.
Here is the guy who knows his own inner David Bowie, his Lou Reed, his

Elton John and his Bette Midler. On “Idol” Lambert was drastically
rearranging songs, bending them to his will to power.

(Soundbite of song, “Ring of Fire”)

Mr. ADAM LAMBERT (Singer): (Singing) Love is a burning thing. And it
makes a fiery ring. Bound by wild desire, I fell in to a ring of fire. I
fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down, down and the flames
went higher. And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of
fire. The taste of love is sweet…

TUCKER: By contrast, the fellow who eventually won, Kris Allen, fits a
more conventional mode, a cross between a soft voiced, teen pop star and
a sensitive singer-songwriter who given the rules of “Idol” wasn’t
writing his own songs. He sang well. He is ordinary guy handsome and
above all he is not threatening or polarizing. He became among all the
finalists, the least objectionable choice, which is probably what got
him the “American Idol” title.

(Soundbite of song, “No Boundaries”)

Mr. KRIS ALLEN (Winner, “American Idol”): (Singing) Seconds, hours, so
many days. You know what you want, but how long can you wait? Every
moment last forever. When you feel you’ve lost your way. What if my
chances were already gone? I started believing that I could be wrong.
But you give me one good reason to fight and never walk away. Here I am,
still holding on. With every step, you climb another mountain. Every
breath, it’s harder to believe. You’ll make it through the pain, weather
the hurricane. To get to that one thing. You think the road is going
nowhere…

TUCKER: That’s Kris Allen singing, “No boundaries” as though he is
completely hemmed in by them. By contrast, Adam Lambert is a fascinating
mixture of characteristics. On “Idol” he was unfailingly polite,
frequently using time other contestants used to plug themselves, to
instead credit the show’s house band. Instead of quailing before the
judges or sassing them back, Lambert looked each one in the eye with a
warm smile and a delightful calmness as if to say, there is no comment
you can make that will dissuade me from what I want to do here. Which is
to make you question everything you think you know about music.

Which is also why many weeks the judges responded to an Adam Lambert
performance with variations on, I’m speechless, and I don’t know what
you just did but I love it. Me, I started thinking, a gay Elvis Presley,
this is exactly what America needs right now. I should say at this
point, as the New York Times put it, Mr. Lambert has not stated his
sexual orientation. But between YouTube footage of Lambert in glam rock
musicals and the flamboyance of his gestures and song choices, he
represents a gay sensibility considerably more inventive and exciting
than that of say, Clay Aiken.

The night Lambert lost, a friend immediately emailed me that this vote
was the delayed Red State backlash to Barack Obama’s victory. He was
joking, somewhat. It’s too bad that the one contestant who really could

have done something with the title, expanded our notions of what a mass
audience, family friendly TV idol could be, was denied that tantalizing
opportunity. I’m sure Lambert will have some sort of career after his
defeat. It’s just that I also believe it would have been a lot more
interesting career if he was also spending the next year as the kind of
“American Idol” this steamroller of a TV show was designed to crush.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. For
Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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