The American dream was built on abundance, especially at the dinner table. But the Great Depression changed all that. In A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, published by Harper, the husband-and-wife team of Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe explores the food messages of those down-and-out years and shows us just how much the era of great want changed the way Americans ate long after the crisis was over. The authors will be at Politics and Prose on Sunday, November 20, at 5 pm to talk about their work. The book can be published at local booksellers or online, at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com.
NUTRITION IN THE 1930s was an emotionally fraught topic. Vitamins, both invisible and fragile, were especially concerning. More than anything else, women were afraid of the “hidden hunger” caused by undetectable vitamin deficiencies that could well be injuring their children. In a letter to [chief of the Bureau of Home Economics] Louise Stanley, Lucy Gillett observed that the Depression seemed “to have crystallized a nutrition consciousness throughout the country,” with more people “inquiring how they might protect the health of their children than ever before.” Home economists leveraged those fears. To ensure compliance, bureau food guides came with stark admonitions, warning mothers that poor nutrition in childhood could handicap a person for life. Women were left with the impression that one false move on their part meant their children would grow up with night blindness and bowed knees.
Aunt Sammy, on the other hand, on the radio show Housekeepers’ Chat made it all sound manageable. As the Depression progressed, Aunt Sammy became the bureau’s voice of reassurance, assuaging the country’s nutritional fears in her small-town cadence. On the subject of vitamins, she had this to say: “Most of us now have a simple but varied diet, and are without food prejudices, get our supply of vitamins whether we think about it or not.” Her taste in food was equally no-nonsense. Aunt Sammy appreciated the frugal standbys that were a part of America’s ancestral diet but that had more recently fallen out of favor. Cracked whole wheat, an ingredient traditionally used to make breakfast porridge, was one of the old-time economy foods promoted by bureau nutritionists. Aunt Sammy became its champion. Here she is in a 1932 broadcast elaborating on the virtues of this generally unfamiliar food, an item that many of her listeners would have associated with animal feed:
Maybe it’s my Scotch blood. Maybe it’s the early training from a thrifty grandmother. Maybe it’s the hungry people I’ve seen and the undernourished children. Anyway, I always hate to see good food going to waste, especially when pocketbooks are thin. That’s why I want to remind you today about one of our best foods which has been neglected by housewives in recent years. Whole wheat, wheat in the kernel, is plentiful and cheap these days especially in the wheat belt. You can get wheat at the feed store or mill or maybe from a farmer in your neighborhood. Yet, many people I’ve been hearing about have gone hungry because they don’t know how to use this wheat, how to fix it in tasteful dishes that the whole family will enjoy.
Whole wheat in milk chowder with carrots, onions, parsley, and pork; whole wheat with diced beef and chili pepper; whole wheat scalloped with liver and bacon; and whole wheat stewed with tomatoes and served on toast were a few of Aunt Sammy’s cooking suggestions. Another concoction—whole wheat, fish, and tomatoes—exemplifies the bureau’s continuing effort to find new applications for low-cost ingredients:
Whole Wheat, Fish and Tomatoes
½ pound canned fish
1 quart canned tomatoes
½ cup chopped celery
½ teaspoon pepper
2 cups cooked whole wheat
Drain the fish, reserve the liquid and flake the fish into small pieces. Cook tomatoes, celery and fish liquid until the mixture is fairly thick. Add the seasoning, wheat, and fish, cook a few minutes longer, stir to blend well.
Well aware that its Depression diet was based on foods that many people would have preferred not to eat, the bureau was always looking for ways to counteract food biases. One strategy was to dress up low-status foods like beans, a critical source of cheap protein. To impart a touch of elegance to a bowl of split pea soup, why not float a thin slice of lemon on top and sprinkle it with some bright red paprika and finely chopped parsley? Or beans could be mashed, formed into dainty patties, and fried like croquettes.
The bureau’s Information Service was prolific and well coordinated. The release of each new food guide and recipe circular was synchronized both with Aunt Sammy’s Housekeepers’ Chat and with a weekly newspaper food column called The Market Basket created by the bureau in 1931. The same information was carried into rural America by home extension agents, government-paid instructors connected with the country’s land grant colleges, who used the bureau’s food guides as their textbooks.
In 1934, the bureau attracted the attention of a media ally, a writer who not only helped spread the bureau’s message but also adopted it as his personal credo. In the 1920s, Gove Hambidge had become interested in the marriage between modern science and food production and published a series of articles in Ladies’ Home Journal about how that unison was changing the national cuisine. With help from bacteriologists, chemists, and engineers, he reported, food manufacturers were supplying the public with products of unparalleled purity and consistency. In home kitchens, women were reaping the benefits of science in the forms of labor-saving devices and canned or “frosted” foods that defied the old laws of seasonal availability. The “New Era in Food,” however, was interrupted by the Depression. Moved by the economic crisis, Hambidge turned his focus from food technology to nutrition, another facet of the scientific revolution that was reshaping American foodways. The Bureau of Home Economics could not have asked for a more dedicated spokesperson. Published in Ladies’ Home Journal, his article “Make the Diet Fit the Pocketbook,” an explanation of [USDA nutrition pioneer] Hazel Stiebeling’s four diets for four income levels, reached more than two and a half million readers. Over the next year, he expanded the article into Your Meals and Your Money, a book-length explication of Stiebeling’s principles written for a mass audience. The following year, Hambidge quit the magazine business and got a job with the United States Department of Agriculture, where he continued to advocate for nutrition education.
—Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
This article is excerpted from A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.