“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” the great French gastronome and essayist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously declared. The history of cuisine—what people eat and why—provides a mirror into the manners, beliefs, and aspirations of particular societies. It is in this spirit that food scholars Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe (who are married) have written their fascinating new book, A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.
Ziegelman and Coe begin their culinary saga by recounting, in mouth-watering detail, a typical midday meal that a Midwestern American farm wife would prepare for her family and hired workers at harvest time in the 1920s. “Culinary preparations began days in advance, with the baking of pies and cakes, half a dozen each,” they observe. “On the morning of the team’s arrival, the women killed and dressed the chickens, baked the bread and biscuits, picked the vegetables, and set them to cook. Beans and beets were boiled, tomatoes stewed, potatoes mashed, and cabbages shredded for coleslaw. The chickens were fried or stewed with dumplings. Cold hams were set onto platters or cut into steaks fried with drippings. To complete the spread, women descended into their cellars and returned with jams and jellies, home canned fruit, chow-chows, and pickles.” Talk about keeping things fresh, local, and seasonal! These ordinary women could teach farm-to-table gurus Michael Pollan and Dan Barber a thing or two—and doubtless have a laugh at the fact that the humble food habits they practiced, which had been handed down for generations, have become a fashionable (and wildly expensive) twenty-first century food movement.
A Square Meal tells the tale of what happened to the traditional and regional American table through world war, the economic collapse of the Great Depression, and the massive southern drought that created the Dust Bowl. The ways in which we responded to these twentieth century crises shape our food culture to this day. The single biggest consequence can be summed up in a phrase: the rise of the experts. As Ziegelman and Coe observe, government bureaucrats “took it upon themselves to interrupt a typically organic process and, in one colossal push, replace traditional foodways with a scientifically designed eating program.”
The government’s expanded role in overseeing eating habits began during World War I, when it sought to get Americans to scale back their food consumption in order to send extra food to the troops fighting overseas. To achieve this end, the Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, deployed squadrons of newly created “home economists,” armed with the latest dietary “science.” Creating low-cost alternatives for whole foods, the era saw such tantalizing innovations as “rice flour bread, mutton pie, soy-bean croquettes, nut and bean loaf with white sauce, and ‘Wheatless, Eggless, Butterless, Milkless, Sugarless Cake.’” (Today’s vegans, in other words, are merely reinventing the wheel). Automated cafeterias became the newest thing in rational and thrifty dining, replacing the home-cooked meal in urban areas where people felt pressed for time and space. Food scientist Elmer McCollum toured the country on behalf of the government, lecturing mothers on how best to feed children, based on the latest cutting-edge dietary experiments with rats.
The government food experts’ presence expanded dramatically during the Depression. Americans, reeling from the economic disaster, with many families worried about feeding themselves, found themselves inundated with pamphlets generated by the newly formed USDA Bureau of Home Economics, urging them to use special, expert-designed menu plans that would teach them how to economize on their diets. Drawing on the Progressive Era’s belief in the power of rational bureaucracy to transform society in beneficial ways, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned to Henry Hopkins and Cornell University reformers Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer to design and manage huge new government food initiatives, including the Works Progress Administration’s lunch program for public schools, which would strive to ensure that children got enough nutrition to stay healthy.
It was Rose who devised the strategy, still used today, of hiding any manner of culinary horrors under a rich blanket of white sauce, and of baking leftovers into casseroles. And the period saw some strange new food stuffs, born of government intervention, such as “Milkorno,” a compound of fortified wheat cereals and dry skimmed milk that could be used to improve the nutritional quality of depression-era dishes like “Chop Suey with Milkorno.” A Michigan nutritional director sold her staff on the meal’s culinary merits by reminding them that a “diet of whole wheat and skimmed milk had sustained rats through more than thirty generations!” Even FDR, who loved good food, couldn’t escape eating this dire new expert-crafted cuisine, so as to sell it to the public; his White House became notorious for its gastronomic poverty, providing state meals completely devoid of flavor and refinement.
The government’s intervention in overseeing American’s diets resulted from a period of enormous upheaval, and some of its efforts undoubtedly helped some families eat more healthily at a time when malnourishment was a real threat. But the influence of experts shaping how Americans eat unquestionably impoverished regional and traditional cooking, as Ziegelman and Coe, otherwise sympathetic to the bureaucrats, acknowledge. As Ziegelman notes in an interview with NPR,
One of the travesties of the period is that all of these home economists did not look to America’s immigrant communities for inspiration. If they had, they would have found a goldmine of highly nutritious, highly economic foods that also taste fantastic.”
Coe continues in the same interview,
I think of the Italian immigrant women in New York City and wherever else they lived; during the early spring the dandelion greens would start coming up in the parks and vacant lots. They would go out and collect dandelion greens, take them home, and sauté them in a little olive oil . . . you want vitamins, there’s a great source of vitamins!
And what about the science the experts relied on? Look closely at the government’s food advice to Americans over the years, and you’ll see a lot of contradictions. As the Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga argues,
More and more, the history of dietary guidelines that our public-health authorities promulgate resembles the Woody Allen comedy Sleeper in which the main character, awakening from a centuries long slumber, learns that every food we once thought bad for us, is actually good, starting with steak and chocolate.
Among the lessons one can take from Ziegelman and Coe’s important and engaging book is that we should be wary of abandoning traditional culinary wisdom in favor of government dictates. Chop Suey with Milkorno can’t compete with Nonna’s Pasta with Fresh Dandelion Greens after all.