A Square Meal, pt. 2

a suare meal

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of The Great Depression, by Jane Zeigleman and Andrew Coe. Published 2016. 336 pages.

Read part 1 of this review here.

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.

Sounds yummy!

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.




13 thoughts on “A Square Meal, pt. 2

  1. stmichaelkozaki says:

    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

    I’m sort of smiling at this one. I like the way Pollan puts it: we don’t have much “food” today but mostly “edible food like substances”. In the Depression most people still ate real food: real grass fed meat, real veg, even grains & fruit were healthier and more limited. The problems were many (lack of sun and excess of hard labor). But the food itself? Much better than today IMO, and losing 1/3 calories is actually not an unhealthy thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hearthie says:

    The two examples of extreme poverty I know about (my grandpa and DH’s mom’s family), both in the South, ate a lot of biscuits and gravy. I seriously doubt there was much in the way of meat in that gravy (especially as DH’s aunts taught me to make a brown gravy from *crisco*), but it was a staple. Biscuits and gravy, fwiw, are essentially the same ingredients, in different proportions/cooking methods.

    Y’all do note the amount of starch in all of these recipes.

    I have an old cookbook (from the 50s, but with a lot of thrifty recipes) if anyone wants some interesting casserole giggles?? It’s got 90+ recipes for jello salad, I’m sure we could goggle for days. (I use it for the truly excellent cake and candy section).

    I do NOT think my grandpa, who was picking cotton through the 20s/early 30s, had the slightest problem getting enough sunshine and fresh air. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elspeth says:

    Totally agree that a decrease in calories is a healthy thing for most people.

    Also agree with the Pollen quote, albeit in part. We do have insane amounts of “edible food like substances”. But there is also a lot of real, nutritious food available as well.


  4. Elspeth says:

    Yeah. Lots of starch and calories in a lot of the food they ate. But they were burning an estimated 4000 calories a day just living.

    Contrast with life today. You are familiar Hearth, with my goal of moving 40 minutes out of every hour.

    One day this week (or whatever day TPC did her beefing podcast), I had a doctor appt. 30 minute drive. Sit in waiting room. Sit in exam room another 20 minutes waiting for doctor.

    Drive back. 40 minutes because traffic.

    Came home tired from that and sat – on my comfy sofa!- another 30 minutes before spending an hour in the kitchen making dinner to sit down and eat with the family.

    I can’t afford more than 1500 calories a day. Even working out.

    And LOL on the Jello. For some reason that stuff was huge back then. I stopped liking it when I was 8.


  5. hearthie says:

    I think we forget how much more expensive that fruit/veg (fresh) were out of season back in the day. Jello and canned fruit would have been an accessible way to get that ‘fruit serving’ back in the days of “three square meals” with all food groups represented.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Crystal Keller says:

    So I’m guessing you did not walk away with any new recipes for your family to enjoy. But perhaps they can better appreciate the delicious meals regularly served out of your kitchen.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bike Bubba says:

    In “Sing you sinners” (1938), Bing Crosby, Fred MacMurray, and Donald O’Connor, three singing kids out of luck in the Depression, beg their mother for spaghetti or hot dogs for dinner instead of amorphous beef roast, and then proceed to pour hot sauce on the latter to make it more palatable. Mom responds by saying she’s cooking for nutrition and not flavor. I’m guessing they knew well what Depression cooking, at least as recommended by the government, meant. Fun movie, too.

    Also, a century before, Benjamin Thompson, a.k.a. Count Rumford, concocted a fairly nutritious soup out of barley and peas for the poor….and to this day, his memory is kept alive in Bavaria as “Rumfordsuppe” is served at Oktoberfest. The same phrase also refers to any soup of dubious consistency and flavor.

    And going way back, Roman emperors gained favor among the poor with handouts of bread on the way to the circus. So government providing that which is unpalatable to “help” the poor goes way, way back.

    And on the flip side, poor people learning how to make “less desirable” foods palatable also goes way, way back. Praise God for poor folk who gave us BBQ, Pho, pepper sauce, chili, and the like.


  8. Bike Bubba says:

    Another point of reference; a child hood friend of mine who grew up the Depression recounted lard sandwiches to me. OK, I bet they put salt on it, but….wow. And I remember writing down and trying a hash browns recipe that was presented at a historic park around Trier, Germany. Worked OK, but definitely more for sustenance.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bike Bubba says:

    What Hearthie says about canned fruit–outside of California and Florida, fresh fruit in the winter is really something from the last few decades. I remember rejoicing when the local marching band sold grapefruit and oranges–it was a time in the winter when we got fresh fruit, yes, direct from Florida. Otherwise each evening it was a walk downstairs for a jar of plums, pears, or peaches my mother had canned each night.

    And Jell-O is for kids, sure, but back in Depression days, it was a source of protein and vitamins, and a great way to use the hooves and tendons that nobody wanted to eat.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. hearthie says:

    What I do note from the old recipes is that access to dairy products was assumed. How many of us scratch cooks can make quite a bit of food from flour, sugar, milk, butter, leavening and salt? Now Bike has me thinking – the aunts are very fond of banana pudding. It’s the flour-thickened kind, not cornstarch.

    Cheap calories FTW.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. stmichaelkozaki says:

    H: I seriously doubt there was much in the way of meat. Mostly. But the meat they had was much healthier.
    H: gravy from *crisco*
    An early edible tood like substance; cancer causing too.
    H: had the slightest problem getting enough sunshine and fresh air
    Rickets due to lack of VitD was a big deal in cities I guess; rural people usually had eggs/milk/pigs tho + gardens. I ain’t saying it was plush!

    E: there is also a lot of real, nutritious food available as well.
    Yes. Anyone who wants to today can eat like a king. But few do. Why? We are addicted to flour and sugar. It’s hard to point the finger at the addicted. Anyone can quit heroin but it sure ain’t easy, esp. if it’s been one’s life from day 1.

    E: I can’t afford more than 1500 calories a day. Even working out.
    I’m a normal metabolism/activity (5 day/wk workout <1 hr/day & walk ~ 1 mi/day) but literally eat double that (8 eggs, large plate meat/veg, 2 shakes for breakfast alone…I won't admit to what I eat for dinner, it's insane). It's not calories, it's carbs. There is a reason WW give 0 points for veggies and guys shrink on Atkins.

    Look at pictures of folk in the Depression and compare to us today. They had shorter lifespans due to disease/poor medical care/hard labor but they looked healthy compared to us today. Been to the mall lately? It's no longer just an anomaly. It's a crisis demanding radical action.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.