Guest author: Katherine Magruder, Ph.D candidate at NYU

Using food to study the Depression—as with most culinary histories—has the curious effect of reviving tastes, textures, and smells of the past.  To a palate accustomed to bright flavors, freshness, and contrasting textures, Depression-era food might be blithely dismissed as bland and bygone, but Andrew Coe’s lecture for the CHNY established the ways in which this food represented powerful political influences, ‘advanced’ notions of culinary science that were clung to in times of uncertainty, and, perhaps for some audience members, a tinge of nostalgia and admiration for the sturdiness and practicality of the cooking style of family members a generation or two older.  Coe took advantage of this approach and delivered a presentation full of evocative sensory descriptions and rich empirical material, while resisting overstating its conclusions.  Amusing and surprising anecdotes coupled with striking photographs, particularly of old New York City, made for an entertaining and informative presentation that kept the audience gripped.

So, what were the effects of the Great Depression on American foodways?  In her introduction of guest speakers Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman (who was unable to attend – but was with us in spirit), historian Anne Mendelson made the point that Coe and Ziegelman’s new book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (HarperCollins, 2016) is the first monograph to take on that question in particular. (This is not to suggest that there’s been a shortage of ink spilled on early twentieth-century United States food history including the work of Amy Bentley, Laura Shapiro, and Helen Zoe Veit, and their bibliography provides a thorough overview of this literature.  But I am unaware of another book that studies the Depression expressly through the lens of culinary history.) By the end of the lecture it seemed clear that the daily requirement to eat and the meanings we invest in food are central to the story of the Depression and the people who experienced it.  The question of how to feed ourselves persists throughout human history, but it is of little wonder that a time when resources were scarce, political ideologies on charity and relief were in debate, and ‘modern’ concepts of food production and nutrition were on the rise that food would paint such a vivid and, at times, disquieting picture of this moment in American life.

The first half of the talk focused primarily on the material circumstances of the Depression and the crises of hunger, steep drops in food prices, and relief efforts that followed.  Coe took the audience from the breadlines of the Bowery, to the relief debates in Washington D.C., to the droughts in the Delta, to New York City schools and their emergency lunch menus, and to rural farmhouse kitchens heightening their thrift tactics.  The main point of tension undergirding and connecting these scenes was the question of how much and what kind of aid should be given to the needy and unemployed.  Coe explained that widespread economic distress and hunger tested a long-held Puritan belief that idleness did not merit recompense, and especially not at the national level.  As goes the familiar history, Herbert Hoover’s conviction that local officials and private charity organizations could do enough to help people in need was eventually succeeded by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach based on federal work programs and aid.

Early on in his administration, FDR sat down to a lunch designed as part of the new White House austerity plan: deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, and prune pudding.  Eleanor Roosevelt and White House housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt were on-board with home economists’ efforts to rethink menus and cooking with nutrient content and cost as top priorities.  In the second half of the talk, Coe zoomed in on these home economists across the country who were responding to the economic crisis with strategies to curb wastefulness, extra expenses, and malnourishment.

Coe emphasized the variety of ways Americans were exposed to this Depression-inflected culinary consciousness, such as the directives of government agencies and the example of the First Family, in domestic science classes at universities and welfare offices, and through media such as newspaper recipe columns and radio programs.  In the 1920s, United States food producers began using radio for promotion and advertising strategies (e.g. inventing the character of Betty Crocker to answer customer letters and host radio programs as a spokeswoman for General Mills).  In 1926, the U.S. government adopted this strategy developed by private industry by creating Aunt Sammy, alternately described as the wife or sister of Uncle Sam, to speak for the United States Department of Agriculture.  Coe explained that Aunt Sammy’s radio program made cooking for the Depression seem not only sensible, but doable and even uplifting.     

The audience sampled dishes reflecting this culinary ethos, including Aunt Sammy’s whole wheat, fish and tomatoes; lentils with bacon; creamed spaghetti with carrots; stewed lima beans; canned salmon fritters; our featured recipes,  chocolate cake; prune whip; and, the crowd favorite, Yum-Yums (also known as Sloppy Joes). 

The Q&A that followed featured discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt’s culinary experience (or lack thereof), Aunt Sammy’s listenership, the apparent lack of ‘ethnic’ influences in Depression-era foods, and rumination over past governmental approaches to food aid / social programs and what this might portend for food policy under the new administration of Donald Trump.