A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, Reviewed by Naomi
In 1930, resident New Yorkers met an unexpected sight: white-collar workers, throughout the city, braving the shame of the breadline. And so, after some camera flashes, one of the most iconic symbols of the Great Depression was born. Yet for food writer Jane Ziegelman and historian Andrew Coe, this was merely the beginning of an era in which economic turmoil would repeatedly turn American food-ways upside-down. In A Square Meal, Ziegelman and Coe retell the Depression’s story through “culinary” lenses, exploring how disparate actors responded to America’s suddenly restricted food budget. With thorough research and flowing narrative, A Square Meal reenergizes the Depression’s dreary popular image. But, as historian Hayden White asks, what purpose does such a narrative fulfil? Despite its novel sources, A Square Meal spins a conventionally top-down narrative undergirded by glorification of “national resilience”—leaving conventional understandings of the Depression, and their attendant problems, intact.
Organized around the broader “Depression chronology,” A Square Meal examines different moments when economic constraints made food a flashpoint of American conflict and creativity. However, rather than following convention and taking the 1929 Crash as its starting point, the authors’ “story” begins with the return of America’s GIs after World War One. Having “seen the sights,” and tasted the foods, of Europe, many such men joined the exodus of young Americans fleeing quiet rural life. Arriving in the big cities, Ziegelman and Coe’s migrants are greeted by an onslaught of culinary modernity in the form of deli meats, soda fountains, and apartment “kitchenettes,” courted by the rise of nutritional science and a fashion for “healthy eating.” With the standardly booming backdrop of the Twenties thus established, Ziegelman and Coe’s stage is readied for an economic—and gastronomic—slump.
Though the story which follows is largely narrative-driven, some key themes are highlighted along the way: charities’ responses to food crises; President Hoover’s steadfast resistance to federal food initiatives, and FDR’s reluctant acceptance; and female home economists’ efforts to keep the cult of healthy eating alive through hard times. Told through geographically and thematically diverse “food histories”—from school lunch policies to food surplus distributions—A Square Meal portrays how Americans reoriented their food-ways in times of wider economic strife. Indeed, this meandering history centers on the argument that “food authorities”—mostly women—“led America through the Great Depression,” forging the country’s culinary future. Resurfacing from economic slump in the 1940s, America was therefore, the authors suggest, a nation gastronomically transformed, awash as it was with mass-produced foods, federal nutritional guidelines, and even nostalgia for lost days of “honest” home cooking.
If this sounds like a story crowded with characters, it is. But for A Square Meal, this is perhaps no bad thing. Proving its credentials as a social history “of” the Depression, A Square Meal succeeds where many good social histories do: deploying diverse sources to highlight subaltern perspectives of “big events” relegated to the shadows. Migrant poetry about heading West “with a coffee pot and a skillet,” nutritionists’ records of acculturating immigrant children to American diets, even menus from “transient camps,” are testimony to the authors’ thoughtful, thorough research. Boosting their book’s scope, Ziegelman and Coe provide strong groundwork for historical production—what White calls “constitut[ing] a story out of the chronicle of events”—such that previously “silent” actors become relevant to the Depression’s history. While all readers can enjoy such reorienting, the more methodologically-oriented will also appreciate the close source analyses often undergirding the process. For instance, a social worker’s diary informs a detailed and engaging “food microhistory” of Manistee, Michigan. With fascinating anecdotes like these in abundance, A Square Meal consistently highlights its authors’ impressive research.
Yet, in turning factoids into narrative, A Square Meal offers little interpretive novelty. For White, “narrativity” embodies an “impulse to moralize reality” given one’s culturally-conditioned norms. With its “moral” emphasis on food-related philanthropy and activism, A Square Meal weaves a celebratory, nationalist—and trite—narrative of an America awoken from small-government torpor. Indeed, the book is littered with cartoonishly “moral” assessments of the era’s key political actors. President Hoover’s announcement that “no one is actually starving” precedes an anecdote about a starving mother; naturally, the authors also describe Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s state relief initiatives in response to such intransigence, acts of basic “social duty.” While these interpretations are unfairly simple, they also belie broader reluctance to defy conventional, nation-level narrative. Indeed, considering the book’s novelistic, non-academic style, such national “moralizing” not only drives A Square Meal’s narrative, as White suggests, but at times seems to intentionally overpower historical analysis—flowery discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “reshap[ing] the national’s culinary consciousness” is, in this respect, particularly damning. Thus, despite its “quirky” perspective, the book does little more than reiterate many “top-down” Depression histories predating it.
These rehashed interpretations are not necessarily ‘wrong,’ but given the evidence, they are clearly not the only histories which could have been told. The book’s take on gender is a prime example. With many excerpts from female nutrition experts, the authors’ thesis—women pushed America’s culinary life through the Depression—is well-developed and quite convincing. Yet this women-as-national-heroes narrative overlooks other gendered dynamics uncovered by the same sources. The question of how “repressive” or “liberating” women found shifting “culinary burdens” to be, is avoided; for instance, a women’s letter to a home economist, requesting advice in feeding her children, is said to embody the mother’s “awakened desire for food knowledge” and the home economist’s zeal for spreading her gospel nation-wide. Overlooking how the former may have felt burdened, or the latter individually “empowered,” the authors flatten their source to fit easy, nationalist narrative suitable for general readership. Indeed, for White, narrative history is desirable precisely because it presents a reality more coherent than life itself. Evidently, for Ziegelman and Coe, “tidying up” means subsuming all women’s culinary experiences to a national framework—and losing other, more obscure dynamics in the process.
More concerning than what is twisted to fit this narrative, however, is what barely made the cut at all. As A Square Meal progresses, an elephant seems to appear in the room: the book’s whiteness. Clearly is not for lack of evidence; for instance, racist Red Cross policies requiring African Americans to work for aid receive mention. Rather, non-white histories are truncated precisely for not advancing narrative. Discussing the Dust Bowl, the authors note that many starving black sharecroppers headed for northern cities, while white sharecroppers moved westward—initiating discussion of “the great chronicle of that westward migration,” The Grapes of Wrath. Insofar as narrative fulfills authorial desires—to describe, as White suggests, stories in line with one’s “social system”—this favoring of tried-and-true romanticizing over black experiences excludes People of Color not just from mainstream histories, but from the American “social system” represented. Indeed, as a light-hearted read about food, such erasure of People of Color from even “trivial” history may only confound historical biases among the authors’ white, non-academic readers. Accordingly, Ziegelman and Coe detract both from popular understandings of the Depression, and from American history generally.
Yet, despite all this, A Square Meal does have its merits. As mentioned earlier, the book’s narrative spans longer than some Depression histories,’ from 1919 to the mid-nineteen-forties. This decision was likely driven by, as White suggests, desire for coherent, story-like history; foreboding description of the twenties’ rural exodus as “the first sign of trouble,” for instance, establishes the book’s novelistic pretensions early. Yet in lengthening their narrative, the authors do place the Depression within twentieth-century history better than many similar works. More noteworthy, however, is how the same “moral” lens burdening much of A Square Meal comes into play here. Highlighting the “forward-thinking” women pushing America on, the authors paint a picture of the Depression in which “modernity” coexists with scarcity. This “celebratory” bent not only challenges popular understandings of the Depression, but also adds a thread of continuity to the consumerist, “Post-War Boom” to come; the female enthusiasm for refrigerators—state-of-the-art consumer technology—closing the book is, given all the anecdotes of culinary adaptation preceding it, palpable. Thus, A Square Meal’s chipper narrative is useful at least in nuancing popular images of the Depression’s unvarying bleakness.
As a social history, A Square Meal had the potential to throw this “bleakness”—economic, political—into new light. Yet, unfortunately, the book fails to deliver. Though thoroughly researched and filled with unusual sources, the imperatives driving the authors’ narrative mean that this evidence is rarely mustered towards new interpretations or subaltern histories. Drawing on popular pride about national resilience through the Depression, Ziegelman and Coe produce a conventionally top-down narrative in which other actors—women, People of Color—are either subordinated to, or excluded from, this history. Though “saved” at times by its ability to contextualize the Depression, the book’s nationalist tint ultimately reiterates the simplistic, and problematic, national myths held by its general readership. Narrative history may be, as Hayden White argues, a product of the historian’s moral lens—but, as A Square Meal shows, inevitable does not mean harmless.
White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary Review 4, no. 2 (1973): 281-314.
—–. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” In The Content of the Form. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. PDF eBook. ACLS Humanities.
Ziegelman, Jane and Andrew Coe. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper Collins, 2016.
. Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 54-63.
. Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in The Content of the Form (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987): 4. PDF eBook. ACLS Humanities.
. Ibid., 278.
. Ibid., 221; 212; 81-82.
. White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary Review 4, no. 2 (1973): 292.
. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 160-173.
. White, “The Value of Narrativity,” 14.
. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 148-149; 123.
. Ibid., 203.
. Ibid., 143-4.
. White, “The Value of Narrativity,” 24.
. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 114.
. Ibid., 216-219.
. White, “The Value of Narrativity,” 14.
. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 7.
. Ibid., 266.