A Square Meal: A Culinary History of The Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Published 2016. 336 pages.
So…what did people actually eat during the Great Depression?
In reality, a lot of people ate just fine. There were plenty of hungry souls, but the one drawback of this book is that without a working knowledge and full picture of the period, you’d come away thinking that just about everyone in America was starving. Not everyone was, but as I noted in the first installment of this review, the hungry were caught in the middle of a political tug of war which spilled over into the rest of the country, changed the way the populace viewed economic security, and catapulted FDR into the White House.
The Depression, for both the destitute and those who feared destitution knocking at their door any day, ushered in a culture of extreme attention to thrift. This thrifty attitude was served up on plates of the employed and unemployed alike. Because the home economists and nutrition specialists who worked for the government wanted to make those living on relief as uncomfortable as possible with the prospect, the food allotments were bare bones and bland, as were the recipes they introduced to families as a way to stretch their food.
Recipes that would make most of us turn up our noses in disgust were prepared and received with thanks by people little else to choose from. Even then, according to Coe and Zeigleman, there were times when the lack of calories and necessary nutrients caused even them to complain of the substandard nature of the food they received. They made do dishes such as Ritz mock apple pie, where the buttery crackers serve as a stand-in for the apples:
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 3/4 cups water
Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie
36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1 3/4 cups)
Zest and 2 tablespoons juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1. Mix sugar and cream of tartar in medium saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Bring to boil on high heat; simmer on low 15 minutes. Stir in zest and juice; cool 30 minutes.
2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Roll out half of pastry on lightly floured surface to 11-inch circle; place in 9-inch pie plate. Place cracker crumbs in crust. Pour sugar syrup over crumbs; top with butter and cinnamon.
3. Roll out remaining pastry to 10-inch circle; place over pie. Seal and flute edge. Cut several slits in top crust to permit steam to escape. Place on parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.
The casserole made its debut during the Depression, but it wasn’t the tasty, cheesy, seasoned dish most Americans love in some way, shape or form. No. It was more along the lines of this ditty cooked up from the mind the well-intentioned Eleanor Roosevelt, spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce (from Ranker.com):
Made from spaghetti, boiled carrots, and a simple white sauce of milk, flour, salt, and butter, the first step is to cook the spaghetti for a sadistic 25 minutes, which in a sane world means Step #2 is to order the biggest pizza Domino’s will make. But this is the Great Depression we’re talking about, so the idea is to get the noodles mushy so they pair nicely with the boiled-to-death carrots and the pennies worth of creamy sauce. The result? A “vehicle for nutrition and nutrients” that probably made people want to eat their old Flapper hats instead.
The most unusual food stuff I came across while reading this book was the word “milkorno”, which I later learned was a mixture of milk, corn meal and salt that home cooks could use in various ways to stretch and pad their meals adding both a filling experience and superior nutrition. From Ranker:
Mad scientists at Cornell University in 1933 invented a gruel called Milkorno, a mix of powdered skim milk, corn meal, and salt, to help families in need “stretch budgets without sacrificing nourishment,” promising “Meals For a Family of 5 For $5 a Week.” The name comes from combining “milk” and “corn” with the surprised “Oh!” that guests of Eleanor Roosevelt probably made when she explained what she tricked them into eating at the White House later that same year.
There were also Milkorno’s step-siblings Milkwheato and Milkoato.
The recipe which sent me on my search for the content and origins of this “superfood” can be found on page 183 of A Square Meal: Chop Suey with Milkorno:
2 pounds lean pork cut into cubes
2 cups sliced celery
2 cups sliced onions
3 or 4 cups cooked milkorno
salt and pepper to taste
Saute pork; add the seasonings and 1/2 cup water and simmer until tender. About 1/2 hour before the meat is tender add the celery and onions. If desired the gravy may be thickened by adding 2 tablespoons of flour to each cup of liquid. Pour this mixture over hot cooked milkorno, and serve.
From our vantage point, 80 years in the future where food is plentiful, we have access to more variety and flavors of food any era, and more nutrition information than we ever needed, it’s easy to look at these recipes and see them as disgusting culinary gruel. These foods however, served to fill a specific need at a specific point in history. They also, whatever their limitations, illustrate an ability to adapt and make due under far less than ideal circumstances, a skill sorely lacking in today’s Western culture.
For those insights among others, I highly recommend A Square Meal. It exposes the reader to a lot of information and history that has been lost to all but the most avid history buff who would bother to seek it out. It’s not a perfect book, but it does manage to be both engaging and educational without bludgeoning the reader with the authors ideology. That latter alone makes it worth a read.
4 out of 5 stars.