A Square Meal, pt. 1

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A culinary history of the Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Originally published in 2016. Hardcover, 336 pages.

After dancing around the review of this information loaded book, I finally concluded I could only do it justice reviewed in two parts. This is because the book delves heavily into two subjects, showing how they overlapped during the Great Depression.

In some sections, mostly the beginning, A Square Meal heavily explores the economic and political climate as the soaring, roaring 20s gave way to the austere and lean 1930s. Beginning with the differences in culinary and lifestyle attitudes between rural America and urban America in the years following WWI, these authors take pains to cover every base that contributed to Americans’ approach to food at beginning of a long economic winter that stubbornly refused to loosen its grip.

They assumed, rightly I believe, that it wouldn’t be possible to adequately discuss the latter without giving the reader a thorough understanding of the former. Because of that, I am going to use this part of the review to highlight some of the cultural, political, and economic themes they explore before getting to the ways this informed meals and Depression era cooking in part 2.

As the mid-1920s unfolded, there was something of a tension between the young people who were leaving the rural farms of their youth (particularly the young men returning home from Europe after the war), and the families left behind on farms in rural America who were largely deemed as backwards and inefficient by modern urban standards. There were whole disciplines, both academic and vocational, dedicated to rural reforms and increasing the efficiency of work for farmwives. This disconnect was largely based on the fact that time and productivity in the two places was viewed quite differently:

“In the great urban centers, the pulse of the factory served as a kind of metronome for the city at large. In the urban workplace, where wages were paid by the hour, efficiency was a measure of success. Factory hands demonstrated their worth by completing the maximum number of standardized motions in a given period. After the factory whistle blew, their time was their own. But even at leisure, city dwellers saw time as a resource, like coal or copper. The fear that time might run out, as every resource will, left them with the dread of time wasted.

On the farm, meanwhile, time was not something you stockpiled like firewood. Farm chores took as long as they took—there was no rushing an ear of corn—and the workday stretched to accommodate the tasks at hand. Time was elastic. The minutes and hours that mattered so much to city folk were irrelevant to the drawn-out biological processes on which the farmer depended. In place of the clock, the farmer’s yardstick for measuring time was the progress of the seasons. As a result, his view of time was expansive, focused on the sweeping cycles of the natural world. For city people, time was fractured into finite segments like boxes on a conveyor belt. On the farm, time was continuous, like a string around a tree, one season flowing inevitably into the next.

It was this rural inefficiency that that urban “efficiency experts” tackled with a fierce determination to eliminate. Even when farm wives expressed great contentment with their lives and lot, their passionate letters in response to magazine articles portraying them as “The Woman God Forgot” were ignored. The people who knew better were dedicated to improving their lives whether they felt they needed it or not:

To quantify what they already knew, in the early 1920s researchers from the Department of Agriculture equipped rural homemakers with pedometers, devices pinned to the women’s aprons or strapped to their ankles which counted their steps as they went about their chores. Among their findings was that one Montana woman walked a quarter of a mile in the course of baking a lemon pie!

I’ll leave the irony of pedometers as a tool to measure steps for the purpose of decreasing them hanging there for you to consider. Efficiency apartments with their nonexistent kitchens, the proliferation of delicatessen, and the marked increase in working girls stood in stark contrast to the life of the farm wife.

Once the crash of 1929 took place, a slow equilibrium between rural and urban life began to gradually flow across the country. Initially the urban centers were the hardest hit, as the rural parts of the country were at least equipped to feed themselves with the fruits of their own labor. As the early 30’s began however, a severe drought overtook much of farm country. Hunger and subsistence living became a way of life in every part of the country.

It is at this juncture that the authors spend a fair amount of time discussing the political policies of the day. There was an outcry from many people for food relief, while the federal government balked at the very idea. Fear of creating a people dependent on the “the dole” was a paramount concern at the time. President Hoover was convinced that a combination of public charity and local government was the answer, not federal aid in the form of food relief.

The federal government’s abject refusal to offer aid in the form of anything other than seed for planting -not very useful during a drought- and copious literature with suggested ways to survive on less, cheaper food largely paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the presidency.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt embarked on what was at the time described as one of the greatest social experiments ever undertaken. Families in his state were given aid in the form of direct food relief, something that hadn’t yet been done beyond the local level and through the Red Cross, which was itself derelict in its distribution of relief to the starving.

Along with the distribution of coupons for a strictly chosen list of staple foods, the women who headed home economics departments throughout the country and in government agencies went to work producing menus meant to be a “living diet” rather than a ‘working diet”. These were complete with recipes for meal ideas meant to stretch the groceries as far as possible. Dishes for example, such as creamed spaghetti with carrots, just one casserole among many that was a popular way to deal with the monotony of ingredients that families were allotted through food relief programs.

That is but one among many culinary developments of the Great Depression with which I hope to share from the book in part 2. This book is a wealth of information and there’s no way I can possibly explore it all, so I do recommend you give it a read if the topic interests you.

I hope to be able to post the second half of this review by Friday.

9 thoughts on “A Square Meal, pt. 1

  1. Bike Bubba says:

    Regarding those pedometers, that was the innovation of people like Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, made famous in “Cheaper by the Dozen.” (book and 1950s movie) One fun thing about Mrs. Gilbreth is that she used those pedometers to design the classic kitchen with a triangle between icebox, oven, and sink–and mind you, this was an important innovation, since it was in the 20th century that more people had access to running water and ice in the summer and/or electricity for a fridge. Previously, you simply had a basin of water you got from the well, where you might keep your cream cool as well.

    Mrs. Gilbreth didn’t actually cook much, but while watching her servants cook, she realized that she could make their jobs a lot easier by reorganizing the kitchen.

    My grandmother can still, at nearly age 99, do mean Depression cooking, and the fellowship around it still is sweet. My brother and I picked up on it, much to our children’s amusement–my nieces were surprised that my family also boiled bones for broth. Yup, good protein and minerals, punkin’.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Elspeth says:

    I still think it ironic that while THEY used pedometers to help women decrease their steps, we wear them today for the express purpose of trying to get enough steps. I laughed.

    Color me unimpressed with a lot of the dishes from the book, most of which were developed in the home ec. specialty departments. That creamed spaghetti and carrots sounds like it might taste horrible.

    Although I am sure some of the more talented cooks did make magic with that they had to work with.


  3. Bike Bubba says:

    Yes, that is amusing.

    Regarding creamed spaghetti and carrots, it strikes me that in the Andy Griffith Show, one episode features Andy eating three spaghetti dinners where the secret ingredient was oregano. Evidently the concept of herbs and spices apart from pepper was quite new in many areas during the 1960s. Bad taste? You bet! That stuff was to introduce a bit of taste beyond cornbread to keep you alive, no?

    (my grandmother believes in herbs and spices, thankfully)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    Evidently the concept of herbs and spices apart from pepper was quite new in many areas during the 1960s. Bad taste?

    One of the points the authors in the book asserted was that the recipes as well as the food allotments were intentionally bland. The American trend towards culinary variety and fancy eating needed to be curbed quickly (the government’s home economists and nutritionists believed) in favor of learning to eat to live.

    One guy, when being told that people were slowly starving thought that this whole deal may have been a blessing in disguise because too many Americans were gaining weight, and this was the equivalent of a mass diet, LOL.

    I am not kidding.

    I do wonder at times if the overwhelming desire for novelty, coupled with the overwhelming abundance of food isn’t a large part of the health problems in our country. But I don’t think putting everyone on a starvation diet is the key to fixing the problem, 😛


  5. Bike Bubba says:

    Ironically, they probably made the problem worse, as researchers have found that people tend to eat until they get a certain amount of “taste”. Beer companies sometimes apply this by optimizing their formulas for “drinkability”, which more or less means you get a dozen guys trying each new formula, and whichever one gets drunk the most wins. I know you’re not a drinker, but it explains a lot of why mass market brews are tasteless.

    I’d guess fast food companies do the same.


  6. Elspeth says:

    Actually I have “laughably” been carded for my favorite brand of GTs kombucha.

    Certain ones are classified as alcoholic beverages now. So apparently I am a drinker.

    And totally agree about Julia Child.


  7. Bike Bubba says:

    Ain’t it wonderful to get carded? I think I’m getting enough gray so that that will probably stop, but I can only smile and say “thank you” in the same way I do when the blood center nurse asks whether I weigh more than 110 lbs. Bless their hearts….

    Liked by 2 people

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