From Canned Foods to Banning the Big Gulp

Review: ‘A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression’ by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

Dinner meal of roast meat with potatoes, carrots, broccoli and broad beans on table
• September 10, 2016 5:00 am

Here’s a curious fact: The single most revisionist account of the Great Depression may be a recent book about American cuisine. A fairly light book, for that matter, aimed at a popular audience. But somehow, in the pages of A Square Meal, the story of the Great Depression—and the lessons the nation took from the hardships of the 1930s—gets told in a new and unexpected way.

Perhaps that’s less surprising than it seems. Down at its root, economics always has something to do with food: To understand an era in history, we need to measure not just its coins but also its calories. Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, the husband-and-wife authors of A Square Meal, may have begun their project with the notion of recounting the odd recipes promoted or adapted in the 1930s—an idea no more sophisticated than the ideas behind any number of texts in these days when every fourth or fifth book seems to have the word cuisine in its title. But along the way, they manage to offer an explanation for why the nation reacted to the Crash of 1929 so strongly—and how the nation drew so many wrong conclusions from the resulting depression.

The answers, Ziegelman and Coe believe, can be found in food. They’re not the first to think so, in some ways. Food formed the basis of a vast expansion of government power when, in its 1942 Wickard v. Filburn decision, the Supreme Court interpreted Depression-era law to mean that government had the constitutional power to limit the amount of wheat a farmer could grow, even for his own use. Food formed the most potent image in The Grapes of Wrath—itself perhaps the most potent work of art about the Depression—when John Steinbeck shows his readers a woman feeding a starving man with her breast milk. "Food, like language, is always in motion, propelled by the same events that fill our history books," Ziegelman and Coe conclude, but their own account shows that this formulation may have it backward: Food is not just the effect but the cause of many of those events in history books

A Square Meal sets up its story of the 1930s by opening with an image of plenty: farmstead tables overflowing with roasts and breads and vegetables. Pies at every meal. Eggs and bacon. Milk and cheese. Potatoes from the cellar, tomatoes from the garden, and preserves from the pantry. The sheer amount of food in farmstead America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was staggering, by global standards. Visitors from Tocqueville on often expressed their astonishment at how well peasant America ate, and one of the great unacknowledged causes of immigration was letters back to the old country describing what a farm could raise. The American soldiers in the First World War expected—and received—perhaps a thousand calories more per day than French or German soldiers. Food, we thought, was our birthright. Food was the given fact of a nation that still imagined itself as primarily rural.

It wasn’t true, of course. Or, at least, not entirely true. For decades after the Civil War, the South knew hunger, and its sharecroppers’ near mono-diet of corn was a leading cause of the niacin deficiency known as pellagra. The immigrants who packed the cities found food costs a huge burden—sometimes 70 percent of a working-class income—and the tenement kitchens were too small and useless to do the kind of canning, salting, smoking, and pickling that kept farm families through the winter. During the First World War, the Army found itself turning away conscripts too undernourished or malnourished to serve as soldiers.

Still, if we start with the picture A Square Meal paints—a national self-image of America as a land of plenty, with waving fields of endless grain—we begin to see why Americans found the Great Depression so soul-rending: People were hungry. The cities were filled with hungry people, yes, but so was the countryside. Even given the kind of weather effects that produced the Dustbowl, American food production at the rates of the 1920s was still possible. The economic conditions of its raising and distribution, however, seemed to have disappeared. And if we were not a people of abundance, then what were we?

In many ways, we were just hungry folk struggling to get by. With pictures from cookbooks and quotations from newspapers, A Square Meal reminds us that the Depression is when loaves and casseroles entered the mainstream American diet, as a way of extending more expensive ingredients and using up leftovers. With the bankruptcy of the old railroad system, the distribution of fresh food became more difficult, and only in longer lasting forms—dried or canned—could ordinary people afford fruits and vegetables.

It’s at this point, however, that there enters the villains of Ziegelman and Coe’s account: the progressives who understood that they shouldn’t let a serious crisis go to waste and used the Great Depression as their chance to force all kinds of things down the nation’s throat. I said that they are the villains of the story, but it would have been better to say villainesses, for they were almost all women.

Ever since Fanny Farmer took over the Boston Cooking School in 1891, a set of American women had been trying to reform the American diet. They were, for the most part, members of the middle to upper class, dynamos of frustrated energy, Social Gospelites, and utterly confident of the new science of cooking—the enlightenment of the modern age brought at last into the medieval darkness of the kitchen. And while they had their share of early successes, the Depression drew them out in droves. Worse, thanks in good part to Eleanor Roosevelt’s friendships with many women of that ilk, the Depression installed them in the government, just at the point at which the New Deal was claiming vast new powers for government. "In one colossal push," A Square Deal notes, they used the Depression to try to transform the way America ate.

Cornell’s Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose are among the figures Ziegelman and Coe describe, along with eating-guides author Hazel Stiebeling and the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Katherine Fisher. But for chief villainess A Square Deal nominates Louise Stanley, who led the federal government’s Bureau of Home Economics in the 1930s. Cracked wheat, she decided, the nation should eat. Canned goods, because they were more scientifically precise. Plain food, as properly digestible. White bread, as sufficiently purified. "Built on self-denial," Ziegelman and Coe claim, "scientific cookery not only dismissed pleasure as nonessential but also treated it as an impediment to healthy eating." Government existed to tell people what to eat, and, by God, to make them eat it. The result was the bleakness of American food for decades after. For that matter, later governmental campaigns against salt, cholesterol, and overly large sodas all have their roots in the puritanical certainty of these women, empowered by the growth of federal regulation.

Now, it’s possible to read A Square Meal as simply another salvo in the culinary wars that have been fueling the publishing industry for several years. Ziegelman and Coe have a purpose behind their account of an America that ate well before the 1930s and has eaten poorly ever since. What they’re seeking is historical evidence to support gastronomic localism, a school of cooks and food writers who urge a return to traditional diets, by way of eating locally raised food. A Square Meal decries "the onslaught of modernity" and the birth of "science, efficiency, technology, consumerism." The book’s authors sneer, with the kind of racial metaphor they wouldn’t dare use for any other group, "Who but a WASP could think up a diet based around milky chowders and creamed casseroles?"

But I think A Square Meal is better read as an account of the psychological and political effects of the Great Depression. Back in 2007, the marvelous libertarian scholar Amity Shlaes published The Forgotten Man, a history of the Depression and, especially, an argument that the economic policies of the 1930s failed. More than failed, in fact: The Forgotten Man claims that the government’s takeover of much of the economy actually hurt the chances of recovery, extending a brutal economic downturn into a great depression, which lasted years longer than it should have—years longer than such previous financial crises as the Panic of 1873 or the Depression of 1920.

Shlaes’s book appeared during another economic downturn, within shouting distance of the election that would give us President Obama, and whether it was attacked or praised seemed mostly to depend on the politics of the reviewer. In the midst of a belated but particularly angry review of the book in 2009, the journalist Jonathan Chait insisted that "the real point" of The Forgotten Man was "to recreate the political mythology of the period." And Chait was at least right that Shlaes had a profoundly revisionist goal in mind. She wanted us to rethink the New Deal’s responses to the Depression—and the way the essential rightness of the New Deal has become the standard history, the political mythology, of the era.

What Amity Shlaes doesn’t quite explain, however, is why the nation reacted so strongly to the Depression, electing Roosevelt to four terms in office despite the history of an unsolved economic crisis that she relates. For that, we need an even more revisionist account.

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal gives us, in some ways, a small case study of the New Deal that Shlaes pictures: a set of governmental interventions that both failed to solve an immediate problem and created future problems. Even more, however, A Square Meal offers an explanation for why the nation responded to the Depression with such intense support for the changes of the New Deal. Down at its root, economics always has something to do with food—and the fact of hunger, in a nation that had believed itself the land of plenty, seemed to require a new way of national acting. A new way of national being. A new way of national self-understanding. And a group of reformers used that hunger as an excuse to reshape American culture into something more to their liking.