"A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression" By Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

Oct 5, 2016

“A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression”

Author: Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

Publisher: Harper           

Pages: 352

Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)

The heart of this book is food or the lack of it during the 30s, but the authors begin with a discussion of earlier American eating habits. These were not always wonderful. Before WWI, most families lived on farms and ate accordingly. Farm wives spent nearly all day every day involved with food. They cleaned vegetables they had brought from the garden, cooked them in water they carried from the well, served them or canned them for winter.

The kitchen was the main room, so large in fact that a wife walked a quarter of a mile in the course of baking a pie. Farm hands took in 4,000 calories a day, and needed them.

Pork was THE meat in the South and Midwest. In fact, many Americans ate a “lard-based cuisine.”

Bread was crucial. A farmstead of 10 people, children and hands included, consumed 4 loaves per day.

I was surprised to learn that spring fever—“lethargy, muscular weakness, and a bad temper”—was actually scurvy, which came on after the root cellar had emptied and was cured by the first dandelions and spring onions. Pies of every kind were consumed at all meals.

I must confess, I find information like this very satisfying.

After the Great War there was a mass exodus to the cities and eating changed. Urbanites cooked less, eating out in restaurants, diners, delis, cafeterias, and soda fountains.

In the 20s sugar consumption spiked. No problem: sugar was considered a healthy energy food. Ladies who lunched might lunch on an ice cream sundae.

Families spent 27% of the budget on food; it is 13% now.

Beginning in the late 19th century, scientists made some amazing discoveries in the new field of nutrition.

They learned to measure calories, then, experimenting on rats, discovered vitamins. The first one, A, was named A because it was discovered first. Then B and so on.

Leafy greens and especially dairy came to the fore, replacing meat and potatoes. No skim milk. The scientifically “balanced” diet was developed. Producers of white bread enriched it, putting in vitamins they had removed.

There were some odd ideas too. It was considered unwise to eat fruits or “acid” vegetables and starch at the same time. Spaghetti with tomato sauce would cause “fermentation” and “acidosis.”

Well, nobody gets it right every time.

In the Depression, the problems changed. Farms were producing too much food, bringing prices down, but the jobless could not afford to buy it.  Fruit was left unharvested. Railroad cars of oranges were sprayed with kerosene. Hoover, who had been a genius at feeding the troops and the starving Europeans during and after the war, was absolutely opposed to federal relief. The dole, it was felt, would “utterly destroy American character and self-reliance.” In a foretaste of the “thousand points of light” philosophy, all relief was to be local—but some communities had no resources. By 1931 there were 82 different breadlines in NYC.

FDR tried federal food relief, but, even in the face of widespread hunger, ended it after only 18 months in favor of the CCC and WPA. Useful work was accomplished and the money then spent for food. More controversially, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration was created and began paying farmers not to plant, or to plow under crops. Even worse, “millions of young pigs and pregnant sows” were slaughtered, “their carcasses left to decompose in Chicago rail yards or dumped into the Mississippi.”

Happily, school lunch programs were not considered destructive of the national character and were expanded.

(One of the unexpected consequences of the widespread malnutrition during the 1930s was revealed in 1941 when 500,000 draftees took their physical examinations and 43% failed.)

The first lady was also active in hunger relief efforts, spearheading experimentation in nutrition by home economists, without regard to food taste or eating habits. To Eleanor, food was important “not for how it tasted, but for what it represented.” Casseroles and baked meat loafs, properly stretched, were promoted. Just to keep people alive, forerunners of the protein bar or shake were invented: laboratories produced Milkorno, Milkwheato, and Milkoato, all made of dried skim milk and ground grain, “with no pronounced flavor of their own,” to be added to soup, stew, anything. The oddest of these recipes has to be “Chop Suey with Milkorno.”

Eleanor even inflicted a nutritious but dismal diet on FDR and White House guests. The president was “a man inclined to indulge his appetites,” a gourmand, but to his disappointment he occasionally sat down to turkey tetrazzini or corned beef hash. The authors describe these dinners as “some of the dreariest food in Washington.” Many ate before they arrived.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”