A Square Meal
A Culinary History of the Great Depression
James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner
From the author of the acclaimed 97 Orchard and her husband, a culinary historian, an in-depth exploration of the greatest food crisis the nation has ever faced—the Great Depression—and how it transformed America’s culinary culture.
The decade-long Great Depression, a period of shifts in the country’s political and social landscape, forever changed the way America eats. Before 1929, America’s relationship with food was defined by abundance. But the collapse of the economy, in both urban and rural America, left a quarter of all Americans out of work and undernourished—shattering long-held assumptions about the limitlessness of the national larder.
In 1933, as women struggled to feed their families, President Roosevelt reversed long-standing biases toward government-sponsored “food charity.” For the first time in American history, the federal government assumed, for a while, responsibility for feeding its citizens. The effects were widespread. Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, “home economists” who had long fought to bring science into the kitchen rose to national stature.
Tapping into America’s long-standing ambivalence toward culinary enjoyment, they imposed their vision of a sturdy, utilitarian cuisine on the American dinner table. Through the Bureau of Home Economics, these women led a sweeping campaign to instill dietary recommendations, the forerunners of today’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
At the same time, rising food conglomerates introduced packaged and processed foods that gave rise to a new American cuisine based on speed and convenience. This movement toward a homogenized national cuisine sparked a revival of American regional cooking. In the ensuing decades, the tension between local traditions and culinary science has defined our national cuisine—a battle that continues today.
A Square Meal examines the impact of economic contraction and environmental disaster on how Americans ate then—and the lessons and insights those experiences may hold for us today.
A Square Meal features 25 black-and-white photographs.
This absorbing history explores what American's ate and, even more, didn't eat during the Great Depression, an economic upheaval that devastated agriculture and food budgets. Husband-and-wife food historians Coe (Chop Suey) and Ziegelman (97 Orchard) revisit an era when dire poverty and widespread hunger prompted a raft of food innovations. As bread lines lengthened, political leaders vacillated over the provisioning of food to destitute families while dodging accusations of fostering dependency and laziness. Welfare supports such as food stamps and the school lunch program inaugurated the enduring bureaucratization of food. The period also witnessed a sea change in how Americans thought about food, shifting the focus from taste and abundance to nutrition as scientists and home economists sought to prescribe adequately nutritious diets from the cheapest possible foods after Eleanor Roosevelt adopted a scientifically engineered economy menu devised at Cornell University, the White House was generally thought to serve the worst fare in Washington and new convenience inventions such as frozen vegetables revolutionized cooking. Coe and Ziegelman have written an engaging social history illustrated throughout with historically authentic recipes. Even if the period cuisine doesn't make the reader's mouth water, the vivid recreation of American eating at a historical crossroads is engrossing. Photos.