Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression is much more than its subtitle promises. Not only do Ziegelman and Coe write about what people were able to scrape together for themselves and their families between 1929 and 1939, they also thoroughly discuss how Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and their Congresses approached relief (welfare) during those hungry years. The end result is a much darker history of the Great Depression than I’ve ever read.
Ziegelman and Coe start their history before World War I by describing how most Americans ate. More than half of Americans lives in rural areas, eating close to home. The war lead to rapid changes in how food was produced and eaten, and years of plenty during the 1920s changed food even more. Americans in urban areas ate out more during the 20s and chased convenience at every turn. When the stock market crash hit in October 1929, all of those changes were thrown out the window as up to 25% of Americans lost their jobs. Ziegelman and Coe also discuss the history of relief before the 1930s, portraying it as a deeply humiliating experience that was only used as a last resort before absolute destitution.
Throughout the Depression, Ziegelman and Coe explain, there was a constant tug of war between those who wanted to spend their way out of the Depression and those who were adamantly opposed to “handouts.” On the one hand, a lot of people were hungry, homeless, and jobless with no prospects. On the other, a lot of politicians argued that just giving people food and money would kill their work ethic. And besides, they said, where would all that money and food come from? (As I read, it became clear very quickly that America is still having this argument.) Between 1929 and Roosevelt’s first year as president, the general policy was:
When granting relief, officers [local administrators who decided who did and didn’t receive aid] followed the old rule of thumb that families “living on the town” must never reach the comfort level of the poorest independent family. (122*)
In the early years of the Depression, under Hoover, some relief was given, but not nearly enough to help all of the Americans who were out of work and hungry. Under Roosevelt, things got better before the president turned away from direct relief. World War II and America’s mobilization for war finally put enough Americans to work to turn the economy in the right direction after a decade of struggle.
When I was going to high school, I got a rosier picture of the Great Depression than I should have from my teachers and John Steinbeck. I was taught that Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and other programs helped keep things from getting too dire. But Ziegelman and Coe’s history revealed that most, if not all, aid was determined partly by that old rule of thumb and partly by semi-scientific guidelines about calories and nutrients that had been developed around the turn of the twentieth century. These guidelines and that old rule left many people malnourished and hungry during the worst years of the Depression. There is evidence that people starved to death.
The cruel irony of all this hunger and starvation is that there was plenty of food in the fields for everyone to eat. It was just too expensive to transport and process. Farmers and ranchers destroyed their stock because they couldn’t make money. Until the Department of Agriculture started buying up the surplus and distributing it, the unemployed and poor had to watch while food was wasted, burned, and slaughtered.
When Ziegalman and Coe talk about food directly, I was alternately fascinated and appalled. I was very interested in the transformation of food in America as the developing science of nutrition took hold. At times, scientists and home economists (who taught people how to feed their families on pennies a day) were disturbingly clinical about food. They reduced eating to calories and nutrients, leaving taste and satisfaction by the wayside—which leads me to the appalling parts. Many of the recipes reproduced in A Square Meal sound absolutely disgusting. I know there’s only so much one can do with root vegetables, but once the home economists started messing around with gelatin and milkorno, I was out culinarily speaking.
While A Square Meal didn’t include as much food history as I was hoping for and the ending was very abrupt, I’m very glad I read it. I realize now that I was missing out on a lot of history. I also have a lot of sympathy for my grandparents, who would have been teenagers in the 1930s, and their parents who managed to keep everyone fed during the leanest of years.
* Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition from Harper.