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.”