Although bread lines may be the most enduring symbol of the widespread hunger faced by Americans during the Great Depression, the story of how the government and regular citizens dealt with scarcity during this period of economic collapse goes much deeper.
In the new book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression," food historians Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe look at how this difficult era served as a transition in American food culture. "The Great Depression was a time when food was front and center in people's attention, unlike any other period before or since then really," Coe says. "Food really, really mattered then, and the question was about whether people could get enough food on the table. The issues about food went all the way up to the top, to the White House." Coe and Ziegelman, who are married, live in Brooklyn.
Q. Before the Depression hit, what were Americans eating?
Ziegelman: There were really at least two separate food cultures. There was one rooted in rural America and one in urban America.
Coe: People were really into novelty and trying new things and new ways of living. That included new ways of cooking and eating. So people in cities wanted to live in kitchenette apartments where the kitchen was a little bigger than a shoebox. It was very good for cooking the home version of fast food where everything comes in a can. People were getting takeout food from a deli or going to a cafeteria or a quick lunch counter or soda fountain.
Ziegelman: Compare that to what was going on in the rural kitchen, where it was really a cuisine of self-sufficiency where just about everything that was put on the table was grown and processed and finally prepared and served by the rural homemaker.
Q. How did that all change?
Ziegelman: It was felt differently in every part of the country. The response to hunger initially was very much a spontaneous effort by public citizens to organize and start feeding the unemployed, and you see that enacted most clearly in the bread lines.
Coe: Under President Hoover, who was president during the first two years of the Depression, the official policy was the federal government should not get involved. But the problem was far larger than they could deal with, and things just got worse and led to Roosevelt sweeping into the White House during the 1932 elections.
Q. Home economists played a big part of Roosevelt's New Deal response to hunger. Why was that?
Ziegelman: Home economics came out of the same kind of progressive politics that gave us women's suffrage. It was a way to elevate and ennoble homemaking by grounding it in science and by giving it the legitimacy and the intellectual rigor of a typically male profession. These home economists were in many ways the radicals of their day. One of their important missions was to make eating scientific, meaning that instead of trusting our palates and our tastes and our urges, we would look to science to tell us what our bodies needed. Eleanor Roosevelt, even before the Depression, had been a feminist, progressive, and a supporter of the home economics movement. In the Depression she became a sponsor and patron saint of home economists. Perhaps her most high-visibility publicity stunt was bringing food produced by home economics into the White House and serving it to her family.
Coe: They quite consciously tried to destroy the old ways that the food system was organized to bring it into the modern system that we live in today of electrical appliances, out-of-season food, and supermarkets, refrigeration, all of that.
Q. What was that food like?
Ziegelman: It was food in which typical aesthetic considerations were put on hold and made secondary to the nutritional content of any given meal. That is sort of exemplified by this famous meal served to her husband very early in the administration, which consisted of deviled eggs served in a tomato sauce with a side of mashed potatoes, and then for dessert this poster child food for the Great Depression, which was prune pudding.
Coe: And the meals were also very, very cheap. It would cost less than 10 cents to assemble.
Q. Another way that message got out was through the radio character Aunt Sammy. Who was she?
Coe: Aunt Sammy was kind of the government version of Betty Crocker. The Bureau of Home Economics put together a radio show that during the Depression was broadcast through at least 100 stations around the United States. During the Great Depression the main issue was getting enough food and getting enough nutrition for your children.
Ziegelman: The foods that Aunt Sammy was plugging were conventionally low status foods — things like peas and beans and nuts and organ meats. Part of her job was to send the message that they're not that bad. Actually if you put a dash of paprika and a little slice of lemon on top of your pea soup, it's really quite elegant. There was an element of morale boosting to Aunt Sammy that was important: Let's make the best of it.
Interview was condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com.