Friday, August 19, 2016

Food, the Great Depression, and How History Works


  “History is mostly side effects’” historian Arnold Toynbee

 “Nothing comes from nowhere…there is a story behind every happening
that is often more fascinating than the happening itself” Anonymous

   I was listening to a recent episode of the Public Radio program Fresh Air, and Terry Gross was interviewing two people who had written a book on the food of the Great Depression. I have both taught and studied the Depression, and while not an expert on it, I do have a good general knowledge of the era. I know about most of the historical and economic events that led up to it, some key decisions that could have or should have been made differently, the different popular music of the time, and a lot of the personal stories of people of different cultures, colors, classes, and nationalities. But I knew very little about the food of the time and how that cuisine was not only a byproduct of the Depression itself but also a mirror of certain social attitudes, technologies, and emerging science. As usual, there was a story within and beneath the story, and it made for a fascinating 45 minutes of radio.

   Terry interviewed Jane Ziegelman and Alex Coe, authors of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression. They discussed how politicians, nutritionists, social scientists and civic planners tried to approach food scarcity on a nationwide scale. That was a huge endeavor in and of itself, but these players also wanted to do more. They wanted to create a cuisine that would not only provide hungry people with food and nutrition but also make an identity statement about the United States. The questions and problems connected to food scarcity tied not only into economics and health, but also into the nation’s fears of immigrants and rising social and demographic changes. The planners developed new ways to use institutions to address a nationwide problem, and they took clever advantage of the relatively new technologies of mass canned and frozen foods. They also tried to “help” millions of first and second generation immigrants in the county adjust to being “American’ by eating an “American” diet. This was as much about cultural identity as it was about food.

    To that end, according to Coe and Ziegelman, “strange “ foreign spices were to be left out of recipes and prepared foods, especially spices that were too hot, strong, or, well “spicy.”  Vinegar and mustard were to be limited as they might make people too “nervous or energetic.” Also left out and limited were foods that were too “textured’ an/or ‘rough.” Smooth, creamy, and what we today would call “bland” was the order of the day. If root vegetables were to be a part of one’s cuisine, they had to be either baked or smothered in a fairly tasteless sauce, preferably white. Calm foods were what was desired. There were recipes for pasta and spaghetti, for example, but in both the government recommended and prepared menus of the time, the pasta had to cook for some 25 minutes until it was a mush.  And many of the recipes called for it to be mixed with white cream sauce, boiled carrots or other overcooked veggies. Nutrition and supply were important-taste was less than secondary. Besides, if it was too tasty, some planners thought, people might get too used to it and start depending on it. That, it was thought, might “weaken their will “to look for work; they would become too dependent on handouts.

   This was also a time when public schools had become mandated, so feeding kids via school lunches was another way civic planners sought to address the food shortage. (We still do this today; free school lunches and vaccination programs are outgrowths of this approach.) But this was also another way to sell the American approach to eating. Kids of immigrants were not only learning English and how to be trained to work in US factories; they were also being taught how to grow up eating “American.” According to the planners, they were using the new science of nutrition and the new technology of being able to rapidly can, freeze and move food to help these poor and disadvantaged kids get food and good nutrition. But no one had been checking to see if these kids were already getting adequate nutrition in their meals at home and if the only food problem they had was inadequate supply. Immigrants and poor people in general know a lot about making do with little and creatively responding to scarcity. When Ziegelman and Coe looked at the typical Italian immigrant menu of the 1930’s they found that it had as much or more nutrition that many of the meals recommended and provided by civic planners. But for the planners, nutrition by itself was not enough; the students had to learn to eat less foreign and more American.  As with many social problems, the backstory behind the problem was about much more than the problem. Solving the food problems of the Depression was about much more than just food.

  There were some interesting side effects that came out of this Depression era approach to food. For better or worse, the growth of what was to be called “food science” really got started during this era. Canning and freezing food to be shipped and delivered to many different places was just the beginning. Frozen and canned foods became an important way of serving food in the 1950’s-just think of the frozen dinners that started appearing on the scene during the 1950’s and that still fill freezers in supermarkets today. As refrigeration technologies grew, it soon became possible to eat a strawberry in Connecticut in January or a spinach salad in Alaska in February. Today we are wrestling with the questions of GMO’s-Genetically Modified Food- bee killing pesticides, and more. All of these possibilities are outgrowths of what happened during the Depression. For better or worse it took off from there.

    And there are many historians who attribute the success of the US military in World War II in part to the planning and organization that happened in response to the Depression’s employment and food problems. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conversation Corps, for example, gave men employment doing the hard physical work of logging land, building parks, clearing swamps, etc. This developed their bodies and got them used to working as part of a squad and following discipline-essential qualities for a military. But they also needed to be fed to do all of that work, so the Corps made use of canned and frozen food and the “new American’ cuisine to efficiently feed the hundreds of thousands of men who were in the Corps. This meant that by the start of the war the US had a relatively large supply of men who were fairly well-fed and healthy and who knew about unit discipline. It also meant that the infrastructure for supplying and shipping large amounts of canned and processed food overseas was already in place by the start of the war. They needed only to develop an overseas component. According to these historians, then, responding to the food crisis as it did inadvertently helped the US government fight and win the war.

  So once again, one event or happening in history had side effects that rippled through the culture with surprising and unexpected long range effects. That is not surprising; it is how history works and how cultures, peoples and nations function. To me this is one of the joys of history-to be able to trace some of the stories behind events, to make connections, and learn and to tell those stories. When we are able to do that we make some wonderful discoveries. For everything has at least one story behind it-nothing comes from nowhere.

A link to LA Times story on feeding families during the Depression: