A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, a married couple from Brooklyn, team up to provide a fairly readable history of the U.S. eating habits from the early to mid twentieth century. They reach back pre-WWI to provide mouth-watering descriptions of the rich feasts served up on successful farms, then discuss how post-war, the youth who saw the world were reluctant to return to the farm, creating the first exodus to the city, “city drift,” as they call it. The meals served up in the city’s cafeterias pale in comparison, and they note the tiny kitchenettes that the apartments were being built with, mostly to be used as wet bars since they were too small to be useful.

Breadlines were a thing in NYC way before the Depression, only they were restricted to being open between midnight and 1am to ensure that anyone partaking in them was truly needy. When the Depression hit, there were hundreds of breadlines set up across the city, but for the most part you only saw men standing in line, suggesting that “hunger was confined to unemployed men, and that women, who were back at home with the kids, were managing on their own. In reality, women across urban America—in fact, a quarter of the American workforce—now earned their living outside the home… The fact that women were missing from the breadlines was never a reflection of need. Rather, women were barred from the lines by force of social convention… ‘Business girls’—young, unattached women employed as typists, switchboard operators, bookkeepers, and stenographers—now suddenly jobless, resisted the breadlines no matter how dire their situation.”

Hoover seemed like he was going to be open to helping the downtrodden but steadfastly refused federal support, believing that neighbor should help neighbor. Lots of people starved or became malnourished during this time, and this policy (along with ignoring the Bonus Army’s march on Washington to protest for veteran payout earlier than later) helped to usher in FDR’s presidencies. Of course, with Eleanor at the helm, things took a turn for the better, except in the White House itself where she insisted on their eating a similar spartan diet.

Always on the lookout for Depression-era recipes, I may try this one that Aunt Sammy (Uncle Sam’s consort) suggests with beans as a stuffing:

Stuffed Onions

Cut large onions in half, simmer in lightly salted water until almost tender. Lift the onions out and remove the center rings, chop and mix with cooked or canned beans. Season to taste with salt and pepper and fill the onion shells with the mixture. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top and bake in the oven until the onions are tender and brown on top.

Eventually, science catches up with economic policy and the nation starts to be concerned about the health of its military recruits in the lead-up to WWII. Vitamins hit the scene, and vitamin B is the sexiest of all, B1 known as the “morale vitamin” because it was a mood enhancer. “If you were tired, it added zip to your day. If you were a wallflower, it helped you get more fun out of life. If you were timid, it helped you live more intensely. If you were despondent, it gave you the will to live.”

Shantytown

One of Patti Smith’s recommendations, a dreamy tale by César Aira about a young giant named Maxi who wanders the streets of Buenos Aires after dark to help the scavengers lug their cardboard back to the shantytown after being rummaged from the garbage. Maxi’s upper-middle-class life is all about waking up early, working out, then napping and helping the scavengers. His sister Vanessa and her friend Jessica get pulled into the story by the weird spiraling side story of the policeman following Maxi and wondering what he’s up to. The policeman suspects drugs, which he wants for himself. Maxi notices a hobo he sees sleeping every day, and it turns out to be the runaway fiance of the maid across the way, who was suspected in the killing of one of the shantytown girls, Cynthia. It all gets pretty tangled up as soon as the story veers away from just Maxi and the scavengers, who end up building him a clean bed just in case he falls asleep when done helping them, as he does at the end. Quite bizarro, but worth the journey.

Black Wave

All the poets are waving their arms ecstatically about this, a chorus of praise from Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, etc. It makes me wonder if they aren’t just this group of friends that all cheerlead each other’s books on. Or maybe I just don’t appreciate Michelle Tea as much because I’m not a lesbian. At any rate, I think this book has been over-hyped.

It’s a decent story, split between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and once you get to the LA part the SF part starts to make a bit more sense as to why she’s writing in third person. But it doesn’t exactly make the first part smooth sailing while you’re clunking your way through.

What’s good about it: depiction of SF during the late 1990s in the first dot boom, glimpses of a world that’s changed over and over. Also, once in LA and the world starts to end, some good doomsday end of times stuff. Inclusion of Matt Dillon seemed a bit silly, but whatever, I guess she needed some LA celebrity bits.

The Words: The Autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre

The Crimes of Paris had a lovely section of remembrances from Sartre of his early cinema experience, taken from this autobiography of his life up to age 10. It’s a simple book, split into two sections, Reading, and Writing. At an early age he precociously pretended to read, devouring the encyclopedia and scurrying to grab high brow works and hide the adventure stories when he heard someone coming. “In any case, I worked over the words; I had to try them out, to decide what they meant. The playing at culture cultivated me in the long run.”

His father dies when he’s only a few months old, his mother takes him to go and live again with her parents, so he grows up in the house of Karl Schweitzer and Louise. His grandfather had a huge impact on him, not overbearing him like he supposed his father would have, but cajoling and spoiling the little Sartre. Grandfather Karl was also a published author and he cautioned Jean-Paul about the hunger he’d be sure to face if he attempted to write for a living.

“I defy my contemporaries to tell me the date of the first movie they saw. We blindly entered a century without traditions, a century that was to contrast strongly with the others by its bad manners, and the new art, the art of the common man, foreshadowed our barbarism.”

That scene of early cinema that prompted me to read this book:

The show had begun. We would stumblingly follow the usherette. I would feel I was doing something clandestine. Above our heads, a shaft of light crossed the hall; one could see dust and vapor dancing in it. A piano whinnied away. Violet pears shone on the walls. The varnish-like smell of a disinfectant would bring a lump to my throat. The smell and the fruit of that living darkness blended within me: I ate the lamps of the emergency exit, I filled up on their acid taste. I would scrape my back against knees and take my place on a creaky seat. My mother would slide a folded blanket under my behind to raise me. Finally, I would look at the screen. I would see a florescent chalk and blinking landscapes streaked with showers; it always rained, even when the sun shone brightly, even in apartments. At times, an asteroid in flames would shoot across the drawing-room of a baroness without her seeming to be surprised. I liked that rain, that restless anxiety which played on the wall. The pianist would attack the overture to Fingal’s Cave and everyone understood that the criminal was about to appear the baroness would be frightened out of her wits. But her beautiful, sooty face would make way for a purple show-card: “End of Part I.” The lights would go on, it was a sudden awakening. Where was I? In a school? In an official building?

 

Dalí: Les Diners de Gala

This huge gold cookbook from 1971 is getting reissued so I had to take a peek at the copy from the library, and it’s probably the least vegan-friendly cookbook I’ve looked at recently. The book assumes you have a very close relationship with your local butcher, being able to order up calf’s lungs, lamb’s brains, frog legs, eel, snails, quail, calf’s brains & liver, ox foot.

The recipe for Tripe of yesteryear suggests buying 4.5 lbs of ox tripe the day before, plus an ox foot, and involves cooking the ox with vegetables for 8 hours in the oven. If you use wild mushrooms in the Fancy mushroom purée recipe, no need for nutmeg. The recipe for Snail stew give you advice on cooking live snails:

It is always better to let the snails sit for a good week or so, since one can never know what they ate before they were picked. Take off the chalky partition which closes the snails, wash thoroughly in water. Put them in a basin with salt, vinegar, and flour. Let them drool abundantly for 9 hours, stirring from time to time. Wash them thoroughly again to rid them of mucous. Boil water and throw in the snails. Let boil for 8 minutes, then skim.

Tomato pie came as close as it gets to a recipe that can be converted to vegan, but the photo looks less than appetizing. I thought the Avocado toast would be a winner until I spotted lamb brains in the ingredient list. But it’s not as if I got this book for ideas on what to make. Rather, I wanted to check out the bizarro illustrations that Dali included alongside the 1970s retch-inducing photos of the food. I was not disappointed.

Cauliflower with roquefort – lots of butter, cheese, cream & eggs

The Beach Cafe & The Voice

Translated by Paul Bowles, these are two stories by Mohammed Mrabet, recommended by Patti Smith for immediate consumption. The Beach Cafe follows the narrator, Driss, as he spots a shack on the beach and befriends its owner, the elder man named Fuad, who asks him to bring him some mint when he returns. Driss comes laden with kif and mint, always paying for his tea and always bringing things for Fuad. In return, Fuad spouts lies about Driss to Driss’s girlfriend Betsoul and her mother, along with anyone else who comes into the cafe, just besmirching Driss’s name to whomever would listen. Driss laughed and kept on bringing mint and kif to Fuad, helping him out however he can. Fuad is a lech, as well, grabbing young American women who come to stay on the beach, eyes bugging out with delight about all the nubile flesh around him; he also tells Driss’s girlfriend to take a taxi back to the cafe and spend the night with him. She declines. In the end, Fuad refused entry to a girl, Zineb, who took Driss’s side against Fuad’s and dumped her rich boyfriend in the process. Driss finally announces that he knew what was going on with the lies Fuad was telling about him the whole time, and how he was a better man for ignoring it and continuing on.

I was always your friend. And when you saw that I was still your friend after all you’d said, what went on in your head? Did you think no one was going to let me know all the crazy stories you were telling people?

What crazy stories have I told about you?

I looked around at the others and laughed. If you don’t remember them, there are plenty who do. I’m not going to give you the list. It didn’t happen yesterday. You’ve been talking for years. On and on, lies and insults.

Fuad had stopped looking angry. His mouth was open.

What you can’t understand is, if I knew everything you were saying about me, why I went on being your friend. I went on because I thought that when you saw how I treated you, you might change and stop spreading your poison. Some men would have. But not you. What you’ll be tomorrow is what you are today, and you’re nothing. You don’t exist. I’ve bought your life with a little mint and some kif. It didn’t cost much, but it was more than you were worth… I’ve always been your friend, and when I leave here today I’m still going to be your friend. And there’s nothing you can do to change it… You’re an old man, and you still haven’t learned anything. You can’t think of anything but yourself.

After this diatribe, Driss leaves, and never went back to the cafe. A year later, he ran into a friend who had been there that day, who tells him that Fuad is now singing Driss’s praises, “Driss was the best of them all. He was a real friend.”

****

The second story, The Voice, was much creepier and shorter. Mseud is born and hears a voice, which he continues to hear as he grows up. He respects the Voice more than his parents and does whatever it asks, like set fire to a pen of sheep or kill a man. Eventually he enlists his grandfather’s advice on how to get rid of the voice, and the Voice sends a beautiful girl who he’s also controlling to kill Mseud. The girl and Mseud conspire to kill the Voice and live happily ever after.

The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection

Co-written by a wife-husband duo, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, this is a bit of a ragtag book piecing together various bits like the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and her return a few years later, the origin of detective stories & true life forensic science, the first crimes that used a getaway car, the acquittal of women criminals due to the jury’s heartstrings, etc. Throughout, the atmosphere of Paris is painted, tales of Picasso and Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein, the development of Cubism, the birth of photography.

The beginning of the modern world arrived with the automobile, the airplane, life sped up. The German writer Max Nordau was afraid that soon everyone would have to “read a dozen square yards of newspaper daily… be constantly called to the telephone… think simultaneously of five continents of the earth, and life half their time in a railroad carriage or in a flying machine.” (Sidenote: this citation is from an odd source, Quinn’s Marie Curie: A Life, which outlines the heightened tensions as they approached the fin de siécle in France. I may check out Nordau’s Dégenération.)

One odd character I met was Alfred Jarry, introduced by Apollinaire to Picasso, known for personal eccentricities like sitting in cafes and muttering nonsense in a monotone, or firing a gun at the end of a cigarette when someone asked for a light. Jarry gave Picasso a pistol which was supposedly fired whenever someone asked him what the meaning of his painting was. Apollinaire and Picasso were some of the suspects in the Mona Lisa heist, due to their association with Pieret who would steal small sculptures from the Louvre and who had sold Picasso at least one.

Reading this book increased my desire to read French, to be able to read all the great writers in their original language. As it is, I should find good translations of Zola’s Paris, and Louis Blanc’s History of the French Revolution. I’ve always been a bit confused about all the revolutions and political upheaval of France, and this book whet my appetite for more. Also: Sartre’s The Words, Proust (just do it already), Fleming’s Art & Ideas, Molly Nesbit’s Rat’s Ass in October 56 (Spring 1991), and James Trager’s Woman’s Chronology.

M Train, a re-read

I gave M Train another read only a few months after I first read it, because I just got a copy of it on Tuesday when I saw Patti Smith at the Nourse, and because she was so damned inspiring in that conversation that I was dissatisfied with reading most other books last night. I read until the witching hour of midnight, then tumbled into bed freshly inspired by her routine, the daily walk across the street to cafe with pen, notebook, and book, to alternate between reading and writing.

This second reading seemed deeper to me, and I got a lot more book recommendations from it. She mentions having dropped breadcrumbs for at least fifty books in this when a stranger taps her on the shoulder asking her to recommend some books. My list now includes:

  • Mohammed Mrabet’s The Beach Café
  • Isabelle Eberhardt
  • Nicanor Parra’s After-Dinner Declarations
  • W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland
  • Jim Carroll’s The Petting Zoo
  • W.G. Sebald’s After Nature
  • Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase
  • Suspended Sentences
  • Wittgenstein’s Poker
  • Shantytown
  • Heart of a Dog
  • Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa

“How could I have nothing to read? Perhaps it wasn’t a lack of a book but a lack of obsession.”

The Tortoise and the Hare

Elizabeth Jenkins wrote this delightful book in 1953, but it is timeless, could easily have been the late 1880s (minus the automobile) or 1920s. It’s the story of Imogen, a youthful and beautiful wife who has lost her 52 year old husband, Evelyn, to a much older mistress, Blanche Silcox. This, simply, is the story but it is of much greater interest than the simplicity belies. It’s more of a story of the gradual waning of Imogen’s power in the marriage, the dissipation of her beauty through not being loved, the eventual facing of the facts when Blanche inches her way into the Gresham’s lives piece by piece. There’s also the figure of Gavin, a troublesome brat of nine or ten, who gets packed off to boarding school and really doesn’t give his mother or her absence another thought. His pal Tim, the son of a neighbor whose household is in a state of utter chaos, always lurks around Imogen and eventually finds her in London at the end and moves in with her, giving her something to live for once her life has crumbled. Helen McNeil’s introduction summarizes the book: “an apparently weak, conventional woman looks on with dreamlike passivity as her domestic paradise collapses in front of her eyes.” The pace is slow and steady, you know that Blanche has won on all fronts and yet you are not sure what Imogen is going to do. It’s the slowest moving nail-biter I’ve read in years! Next up, Harriet (1934), one of her earliest successful novels.

Black Cherries

A lovely little book/novel/collection of short stories from Grace Stone Coates, the mysterious Montana writer who blipped onto the radar for a few years before sinking into forgottenness. Born in 1881, she spent most of her life in a small ranching community in Montana, and wrote her stories between 1927 and 1934. These are tightly written farm tales from the perspective of a six year old girl withstanding pinches from her older sister and trying to decode the cryptic commands of her mother. The main complaint between her parents seems to be that her mother has a few children die in childbirth, so she’s not fulfilling her duty. Great, light writing that gets at the joy of childhood, frolicking in the yard and poking at things with sticks.

Eva Hesse Spectres 1960

While enjoying Dodie Bellamy’s The Buddhist, she mentions reading Helen Molesworth’s Me, You, Us: Eva Hesse’s Early Paintings, which is one of the essays in this book accompanying the 2010 exhibition of Hesse’s early works, twenty-ish oil paintings that show “spectral” figures, odd self-portraits and groups of figures.

The essays dive into the question of self, and distance between self and others, the problems and joys of isolation, solitude, proximity, distance, and connection. No wonder I love Hesse’s work so much.

The Common Woman

Judy Grahn’s chapbook of seven poems, The Common Woman, published by Spinsters Ink and printed by the Womens Press Colective with drawings by Wendy Cadden in the version I grabbed from the library. Seven poems about women all ending in a refrain about the common woman “is as common as the common crow,” or “as common as a thunderstorm,” as common as the reddest wine,” etc.

The first is Helen, at 9 am, at noon, at 5:15, a powerful poem about a working woman who tries to morph as much as possible into a man. “Her grief expresses itself in fits of fury/ over details, details take the place of meaning,/ money takes the place of life.”

We also have a hitchhiker, a waitress, a lesbian who’s just come out, an abortionist, a neighbor. A beautiful collection that supposedly inspired the women’s movement with its exhortation to rise up, “the common woman is as common as the best of bread and will rise and will become strong…”

Sidenote, I learned about Grahn from The Feminist Bookstore Movement book, where her poem inspired the name of the Austin feminist bookstore. Sadly she asked them for money for using her term “Common Woman,” and that alongside the new landlord’s ridiculous request for a new name caused them to change to Bookwoman.

The Worst Journey in the World

The Worst Journey in the World makes for one of the best stories in the world. Apsley Cherry-Garrard (his name just makes you sit up primly, a real British gentleman) wrote this a decade after returning to England after three years in Antarctica between 1910-1913 on the Terra Nova expedition, Scott’s last (he died after reaching the South Pole a month after the Norwegian Amundsen).

This edition includes a very informative Introduction wherein he outlines previous polar expeditions, especially the one led by Norwegian Nansen in 1893-6 to sniff around the North Pole where they built a ship (the Fram) designed to rise and sit atop the ice when pressed instead of being crushed by the ice. The Fram has a role in Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, a sneaky about face because Amundsen led everyone to believe he was headed North again before slipping off to try to reach the South Pole first.

Also in the Introduction, Cherry-Garrard tackles the question of Scott’s depression, defending his diary as “one of the only ways in which a man can blow off steam, and so it is that Scott’s book accentuates the depression which used to come over him sometimes.” Had he survived, Scott surely would have excised or toned down these passages. As it is, they remain in full in Scott’s Last Expedition.

Then there’s a lovely Foreword by George Seaver to get us better acquainted with Cherry-Garrard, explaining his whole family history and how C-G got involved with the expedition, detailing his later friendship with George Bernard Shaw. Seaver posits that this journey was the highlight of C-G’s life at the early age of 24, and the rest of his life was a gradual downward slide (“The Antarctic—two-and-a-half years of youth—was the highlight of his life’s experience; the long remainder was anticlimax”)  that was luckily interrupted by a 1939 marriage he made to an angel named Angela who “gave him the best years of her life in selfless devotion.”

Even the journey south by ship was tumultuous and dangerous, huge seas and storms pushing the ponies off the deck, freezing the dogs, fires and the ever present pumping to remove water from the hold. Once they’re landed, they unload the ship, build their winter quarters, and start sledging out supplies to the various depots that will help them on the polar expedition.

Description of the first winter is very jolly, the details of the food and cocoa and daily routine of work, scientific observations, meals, and sleep. “There was never any want of conversation, largely due to the fact that no conversation was expected: we most of us know the horrible blankness which comes over our minds when we realize that because we are eating we are also supposed to talk, whether we have anything to say or not.” Then pipes were brought out, digestion occurred, singing along with the piano or gramophone. They had lectures (optional attendance), reading, games of chess, and of course lots of planning for the polar journey.

The actual worst journey in this long Antarctic trip was during that first winter, when Edward “Bill” Wilson taps Cherry-Garrard and Bowers to be a three-man team headed out in the dead of winter (no sunlight, ever) to travel for 35 days in temperatures of -70 degrees to collect emperor penguin eggs from Cape Crozier, a 130 mile round trip. Average temperatures for the trip were -45, and the team were caught in a near hurricane at the furthest reach of their journey that ripped their tent away. They assumed that they would die, but were able to find the tent blown a few miles away, completely intact.

“I have met with amusement people who say, ‘Oh, we had minus fifty temperatures in Canada; they didn’t worry me,’ or ‘I’ve been down to minus sixty something in Siberia.’ And then you find that they had nice dry clothing, a nice night’s sleep in a nice aired bed, and had just walked out after lunch for a few minutes from a nice warm hut or an overheated train. And they look back upon it as an experience to be remembered. Well! of course as an experience of cold this can only be compared to eating a vanilla ice with hot chocolate cream after an excellent dinner at Claridge’s.”

The three men make it back, but then go on several more grueling sledging journeys. Bowers and Wilson die alongside Scott in the tent on the polar journey, dead from lack of fuel and the onset of bad weather. C-G spends some pages (and most likely many sleepless nights once he returned to civilization) grinding through what he thought the problems of the journey were, could he have done more, were mistakes made? In the end, Cherry-Garrard sums up his thoughts, “Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.”

Antarctic Penguins

One of the members of the 1911 Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica, George Murray Levick, was a zoologist who made an extensive study of the Adélie penguins there. His resulting 1914 book includes several photographs of the birds in various states around their rookery, and he assigned very human characteristics to the penguins as he was studying them and stealing their eggs to eat. This was an interesting sideline book to read since it was mentioned in Cherry-Garrand’s The Worst Journey In The World, which I am finishing up now.

Postscript: apparently Levick was shocked by some of the behavior he witnessed which was excised from the book– belligerent hooligan male penguins that would have sex with each other and with dead female penguins. He encoded these notes in Greek so that only his learned pals could read them, so it wouldn’t shock the normal public supposedly.

Travel Light

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific writer, with over 70 books to her name when she died at age 101 in 1999. Travel Light was the first book I could find by her, although she’s more known for The Corn King and the Spring Queen, which I will soon have winging its way to my clutches. This book (Travel Light) is a great adventure tale of a discarded princess (Halla) raised by bears and then dragons, constantly running into Valkyries who try to recruit her. She barely ages as she winds her way through the dark ages into Constantinople and up to the forests of Finland. She ends up helping some wanderers by being able to fix horse races by talking to the horses, giving their winnings to the church. One of the men, Tarkan Der, decides he must marry Halla, but she wants nothing of it, leading to one of my favorite marriage proposal rejections in literature: “Why shall we be married?” “Because it is not right that we should travel together always and not be married.” “Perhaps I will not travel with you always.”

Very dreamy, perfect for middle school readers, also awesome that it gives a strong and adventurous girl the main action.