Book Review: A Square Meal – Part I: Foods of the ‘20s and ‘30s

[Content warning: Food, culture shock, milk]

They say that the past is a foreign country, and nowhere is this more true than with food. 

The book is A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, recommended to us by reader Phil Wagner. This book is, no pun intended, just what it says on the tin, a history of food during the 1920s and 1930s. Both decades are covered because you need to understand what food was like in the 1920s to understand what changed when the Great Depression battered the world in the ‘30s. 

Home is where the lard-based diet is

We read this book and were like, “what are you eating? I would never eat this.” 

The book picks up at end of World War I, and the weird food anecdotes begin immediately:  

Their greeting back in American waters—even before they landed—was rapturous. Local governments, newspapers, and anybody else who could chartered boats to race out to meet the arriving ships. When the Mauretania, carrying 3,999 troops, steamed into New York Harbor late in 1918, a police boat carrying the mayor’s welcoming committee pulled alongside. After city dignitaries shouted greetings to them through megaphones, the troops who crowded the deck and hung from every porthole bellowed en masse: “When do we eat?!” It became a custom for greeting parties to hire professional baseball pitchers to hurl California oranges at the troops—some soldiers sustained concussions from the barrage—to give them their first taste of fresh American produce in more than a year.

Not that the soldiers weren’t also well-fed at the front lines: 

Despite the privations they had undergone, the Americans held one great advantage over both the German enemy and the soldiers of their French and British allies. They were by far the best-fed troops of World War I.

The U.S. Army field ration in France varied according to circumstances, but the core of the soldiers’ daily diet was twenty ounces of fresh beef (or sixteen ounces of canned meat or twelve ounces of bacon), twenty ounces of potatoes, and eighteen ounces of bread, hard or soft. American troops were always proud that they enjoyed white bread, while all the other armies had to subsist on dark breads of various sorts. This ration was supplemented with coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, dried fruit, and jam. If supply lines were running, a soldier could eat almost four pounds of food, or 5,000 calories, a day. American generals believed that this was the best diet for building bone, muscle, tissue, and endurance. British and French troops consumed closer to 4,000 calories, while in the last months of the war the Germans were barely receiving enough rations to sustain themselves.

The overall food landscape of the 1920s is almost unrecognizable. The term “salad” at the time referred to “assemblages made from canned fruit, cream cheese, gelatin, and mayonnaise,” which the authors note FDR especially hated [1]. Any dish that contained tomatoes was called “Spanish” (a tradition that today survives only in the dish Spanish rice). And whatever the circumstances, there was ALWAYS dessert — even in the quasi-military CCC camps, even in the government-issued guides to balanced meals, even in school lunch programs that were barely scraping by. 

This book also has some interesting reminders that constipation used to be the disease of civilization. In fact, they mention constipation being called “civilization’s curse”. This is why we have the stereotype of old people being obsessed with fiber and regularity, even though that stereotype is about a generation old now, and refers to a generation that has largely passed.

In the countryside, farm diets were enormous and overwhelmingly delicious: 

In midwestern kitchens, the lard-based diet achieved its apotheosis in a dish called salt pork with milk gravy, here served with a typical side of boiled potatoes:

On a great platter lay two dozen or more pieces of fried salt pork, crisp in their shells of browned flour, and fit for a king. On one side of the platter was a heaping dish of steaming potatoes. A knife had been drawn once around each, just to give it a chance to expand and show mealy white between the gaping circles that covered its bulk. At the other side was a boat of milk gravy, which had followed the pork into the frying-pan and had come forth fit company for the boiled potatoes.

The first volume of their oral history, Feeding Our Families, describes the Indiana farmhouse diet from season to season and meal to meal. In the early decades of the century, the Hoosier breakfast was a proper sit-down feast featuring fried eggs and fried “meat,” which throughout much of rural American meant bacon, ham, or some other form of pork. In the nineteenth century, large tracts of Indiana had been settled by Germans, who left their mark on the local food culture. A common breakfast item among their descendants was pon haus, a relative of scrapple, made from pork scraps and cornmeal cooked into mush, molded into loaf pans and left to solidify. For breakfast, it was cut and fried. Toward fall, as the pork barrel emptied, the women replaced meat with slices of fried apples or potatoes. The required accompaniment was biscuits dressed with butter, jam, jelly, sorghum syrup, or fruit butter made from apples, peaches, or plums. A final possibility—country biscuits were never served naked—was milk gravy thickened with a flour roux.

Where farmhouse breakfasts were ample, lunch was more so, especially in summer when workdays were long and appetites pushed to their highest register. With the kitchen garden at full production, the midday meal often included stewed beets, stewed tomatoes, long-simmered green beans, boiled corn, and potatoes fried in salt pork, all cooked to maximum tenderness. At the center of the table often stood a pot of chicken and dumplings, with cushiony slices of white bread to sop up the cooking broth. The gaps between the plates were filled with jars of chow-chow; onion relish; and pickled peaches, cauliflower, and watermelon rinds. The midday meal concluded with a solid wedge of pie. Like bread, pies were baked in bulk, up to a dozen at a time, and could be consumed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ingredients were prepared in ways that sound pretty strange to a modern ear. Whole onions were baked in tomato sauce and then eaten for lunch. Whole tomatoes were scalloped on their own. 

Organ meats were considered perfectly normal, if somewhat tricky to cook. The book mentions how food columnists had to teach urban housewives about how to remove the “transparent casing” that brains naturally come in, the membrane from kidneys, and the arteries and veins from hearts — not the sort of thing you would expect from a modern food columnist. On hog-killing day, an annual event all over the rural United States: 

The most perishable parts of the animal were consumed by the assembled crowd, the brains scrambled with eggs, the heart and liver fried up and eaten with biscuits and gravy. Even bladders were put to good use—though it wasn’t culinary. Rather, they were given to the children, who inflated them, filled them with beans, and used them as rattles.

There are a lot of fascinating recipes in this book, but perhaps our favorite is this recipe that appears in a section on the many uses of pork lard: 

Appalachian farm women prepared a springtime specialty called “killed lettuce,” made from pokeweed, dandelion, and other wild greens drizzled with hot bacon grease that “killed,” or wilted, the tender, new leaves. The final touch to this fat-slicked salad was a welcome dose of vinegar.

You might expect the urban food situation to be more modern, seeing as it involves less hog-killing. But if anything, it’s stranger. 

To start with, ice cream delicacies were considered normal lunch fare: 

The most typical soda fountain concoction was the ice cream soda, which was defined as “a measured quantity of ice cream added to the mixture of syrup and carbonated water. From there, the imaginations of soda jerks were given free range. Trade manuals such as The Dispenser’s Formulary or Soda Water Guide contained more than three thousand soda fountain recipes for concoctions like the Garden Sass Sundae (made with rhubarb) and the Cherry Suey (topped with chopped fruit, nuts, and cherry syrup). … From relatively austere malted milks to the most elaborate sundaes, all of these sweet confections were considered perfectly acceptable as a main course for lunch, particularly by women. In fact, American sugar consumption spiked during the 1920s. This was in part thanks to Prohibition—deprived of alcohol, Americans turned to anything sweet for a quick, satisfying rush.

Delicatessens and cafeterias, which we take for granted today, were strange new forms of dining. The reaction to these new eateries can only be described as apocalyptic. Delicatessens were described as “emblems of a declining civilization, the source of all our ills, the promoter of equal suffrage, the permitter of business and professional women, the destroyer of the home.” The world of the 1920s demanded an entirely new vocabulary for many new social ills springing up — “cafeteria brides” and “delicatessen husbands” facing down the possibility of that new phenomenon, the “delicatessen divorce.” The fear was that your flapper wife, unable to make a meal in her tiny city kitchenette, or out all day with a self-supporting career, would feed you food that she got from the delicatessen, instead of a home-cooked and hearty meal. 

In all of these cases, the idea was that new ways of eating would destroy the kitchen-centric American way of life — which, to be fair, it did. Calling a deli “the destroyer of the home” seems comical to us, but they were concerned that these new conveniences would destroy the social structures that they knew and loved, and they were right. We think our way of life is an improvement, of course, but you can hardly fault the accuracy of their forecasting.

Really, people found these new eateries equal parts wonderful and terrifying — like any major change, they had their songs of praise as well as their fiery condemnations (hot take: delicatessens were the TikTok of the 1920s). For a stirring example from the praise section, take a look at this lyrical excerpt from the June 18, 1922 edition of the New York Tribune:

Spices of the Orient render delectable the fruits of the Occident. Peach perches on peach and pineapple, slice on slice, within graceful glass jars. Candies are there and exhibits of the manifold things that can be pickled in one way or another. Chickens, hams and sausages are ready to slice, having already been taken through the preliminaries on the range. There are cheeses, fearful and wonderful, and all the pretty bottles are seen, as enticing looking as ever, although they are but the fraction of their former selves [i.e., under Prohibition].”

CHEESES FEARFUL AND WONDERFUL

Sandwiches were not only strange and new, but practically futuristic. “Before the 1920s, sandwiches were largely confined to picnics and free lunches in saloons,” they tell us, “and, with their crusts cut off, delicate accompaniments to afternoon tea.” The writer George Jean Nathan claimed that before the 1920s, there existed only eight basic sandwich types: Swiss cheese, ham, sardine, liverwurst, egg, corned beef, roast beef, and tongue (yes). But by 1926, he “claimed that he had counted 946 different sandwich varieties stuffed with fillings such as watermelon and pimento, peanut butter, fried oyster, Bermuda onion and parsley, fruit salad, aspic of foie gras, spaghetti, red snapper roe, salmi of duck, bacon and fried egg, lettuce and tomato, spiced beef, chow-chow, pickled herring, asparagus tips, deep sea scallops, and so on ad infinitum.”

Like the delicatessen, Americans were not going to take this sandwich thing lying down. Nor would they take it at all calmly! Boston writer Joseph Dinneen described sandwiches as “a natural by-product of modern machine civilization.”

Make your own “biggest thing since sliced bread” joke here, but actually this sandwich craze led directly to first the invention of special sandwich-shaped loaves with flattened tops, and then to sliced bread, which hit the market in 1928.

Frozen foods had also just been invented (frozen foods are soggy and tasteless unless you freeze them really fast; Clarence Birdseye figured out how to do quick freezing by seeing fish freeze solid during an ice fishing trip in Labrador) and were considered a novelty. Yet somehow the brand name Jell-O dates all the way back to 1897.

Many new foods didn’t fit squarely within existing categories. This is sort of like how squid ice cream seems normal in Japan. We have rules about what you can put in an ice cream — mint ice cream makes sense, but onion ice cream is right out — but the Japanese don’t care what we think the ice cream rules are. In the 1920s and 1930s many foods were unfamiliar or actually brand new, so no one had any expectations of what to do with them. For example, the banana, which you know as a fruit, was new enough to Americans that they were still figuring out how the thing should be served

Does seem guaranteed to start conversation! 

We’re sure bananas would be fine served as a vegetable, or with bacon, but this is certainly not the role we would assign to them today.

When the Depression hit, grapefruit somehow found its way into food relief boxes in huge quantities; “so much grapefruit that people didn’t know what to do with it.” Soon the newspapers were coming up with imaginative serving suggestions, like in this piece from the Atlanta Constitution:

It may open the meal, served as a fruit cocktail, in halves with a spoonful of mint jelly in the center or sprinkled with a snow of powdered sugar. It bobs up in a fruit cup, or in a delicious ice. It may be served broiled with meat, appear in a fruit salad or in a grapefruit soufflé pie. Broiled grapefruit slices, seasoned with chili sauce, make an unusual and delightful accompaniment for broiled fish, baked fish or chops.

Some of these sound pretty good; but still, unusual.

Vitamins

The other really strange and exciting thing about this period is that they had just discovered vitamins.

As we’ve covered previously, this was not as easy as you might think. It’s simple to think in terms of vitamins when you’re raised with the idea, but it took literally centuries for people to come up with the concept of a disease of deficiency, even with the totally obvious problem of scurvy staring everyone right in the face. 

Scurvy isn’t just a problem for polar explorers and sailors in the Royal Navy. Farm families living through the winter on preserved foods from their cellar tended to develop “spring fever” just before the frost broke, which the authors of this book think was probably scurvy. Farmwives treated it with “blood tonics” like sassafras tea or sulfured molasses, or the first-sprouted dandelions and onions of spring.

But just around the turn of the century, and with the help of cosmic accidents involving guinea pigs, people finally started to get this vitamin thing right. So the 1920s and 30s paint an interesting picture of what cutting-edge nutrition research looks like when it’s so new that it’s still totally bumbling and incompetent. 

In 1894, Wilbur Olin Atwater established America’s first dietary standards. Unfortunately, Atwater’s recommendations didn’t make much sense. For example, in this system men with more strenuous jobs were assigned more food than men with less strenuous jobs — a carpenter would get more calories than a clerk. This makes some sense, but Atwater then used each man’s food levels to calculate the amount of food required for his wife and kids. The children of men with desk jobs sometimes got half as much food as the children of manual laborers! The idea of treating each member of the family as their own person, nutritionally speaking, was radical in the early 1900s, but the observation that some children were “kept alive in a state of semi-starvation” had begun to attract attention.

People knew they could do better, so following Atwater’s death in 1907, the next generation got to work on coming up with a better system. Atwater had assumed that basically all fats were the same, as were all carbohydrates, all protein, etc. But Dr. Elmer V. McCollum, “a Kansas farm boy turned biochemist”, was on the case investigating fats. 

We really want to emphasize that they had no system at this point, no idea what they were doing. Medical science was young, and nutritional science was barely a decade old. Back then they were still just making things up. These days “guinea pig” and “lab rat” are clichés, but these clichés hadn’t been invented back in 1907. Just like how Holst and Frolich seem to have picked guinea pigs more or less at random to study scurvy, and how ​Karl Koller’s lab used big frogs to test new anesthetics, McCollum was one of the first researchers to use rats as test subjects.

Anyways, McCollum tried feeding his rats different kinds of fats to see if, as Atwater claimed, all fats had the same nutritional value. He found that rats that ate lots of butterfat “grew strong and reproduced, while those that ate the olive oil did not”. He teamed up with a volunteer, Marguerite Davis, and they discovered a factor that was needed for growth and present not only in milk, but eggs, organ meat, and alfalfa leaves. This factor was later renamed vitamin A (as the first to be discovered), and the age of the vitamins had begun. Soon McCollum and Davis were on the trail of a second vitamin, which they naturally called vitamin B.

The public went absolutely bananas for vitamins. It’s not clear if this was a totally natural public reaction, or if it was in response to fears drummed up by… home economists. Yes, home economics, the most lackluster class of all of middle school, represents that last lingering influence of what was once a terrible force in American politics: 

More than anything else, women were afraid of the “hidden hunger” caused by undetectable vitamin deficiencies that could well be injuring their children. … Home economists leveraged those fears. To ensure compliance, bureau food guides came with stark admonitions, warning mothers that poor nutrition in childhood could handicap a person for life. Women were left with the impression that one false move on their part meant their children would grow up with night blindness and bowed knees.

Whatever the cause, vitamins took America by storm. Any food found to be high in one vitamin or another quickly turned that finding to advertising purposes. Quaker oats, found to be high in vitamin B, advertised to kids with a campaign that “teamed up with Little Orphan Annie and her new pal, a soldier named Captain Sparks, who could perform his daring rescues because he had eaten his vitamins.” For adults, they implied that vitamin B would help make you vigorous in bed: 

…a snappy new advertising campaign: “I eat Quaker Oats for that wonderful extra energy ‘spark-plug.’ Jim thinks I have ‘Oomph!’ but I know it’s just that I have plenty of vitality and the kind of disposition a man likes to live with.” What she did with her extra “oomph” was unspecified, but the graphic showed a young couple nose to nose, smiling into each other’s eyes.

Vitamins continued to have this weird grip over the imagination for a long time. As late as the 1940s, American food experts worried that the Nazis had developed some kind of super-nutritional supplement, a “magical Buck Rogers pill,” to keep their army tireless and efficient (there probably was such a pill, but that pill was methamphetamine). In response, Roosevelt convened a 900–person National Nutrition Conference for Defense, a full quarter of them home economists, to tackle malnutrition as part of the war effort.

Maybe it’s not surprising that vitamins had such a hold on the popular imagination. It’s hard for us to imagine growing up in a world where scurvy, beriberi, and rickets were a real and even terrifying danger, not just funny-sounding words you might encounter in a Dickens novel. But for people living in the 1920s, they were no joke. Look at your local five-year-old and think how they will never understand the real importance of the internet, and what life was like before. You’re the same way about vitamins.

Milk

The final thing we learned is that people from the 1920s and 1930s had an intense, almost deranged love for milk.

Milk was always mentioned first and usually mentioned often. It was on every menu. Good Housekeeping’s 1926 article, Guide Posts to Balanced Meals, included “One pint of milk a day as either a beverage or partly in soups, sauces or desserts” as guidepost #1. Pamphlets from the USDA’s Bureau of Home Economics suggested that one fifth of a family’s food budget should be spent on milk. Milk was served at every meal in the schoolhouse, with milk and crackers at recess, the target being a quart of milk for every child, every day.

Milk was on every relief list. Food relief in NYC in 1930, a very strict beans-and-potatoes affair, still made sure to include a pound of evaporated milk for every family. Even for those on microscopic fifty-cent-a-day menus, milk was recommended at every meal, “one pint for breakfast, some for lunch, and then another pint for supper.” One father struggling to adjust to the Depression said, “We had trouble learning to live within the food allowance allotted us. We learned it meant oleomargarine instead of butter. It meant one quart of milk a day for the children instead of three.” Even the tightest-fisted relief lists included a pint of milk a day for adults, and a quart a day for children. The most restrictive diets of all were bread and — you guessed it — milk.

Milk was the measure of destitution. Descriptions of people eating “whatever they could get” sound like this: “inferior qualities of food and less of it; less milk; loose milk instead of bottled milk, coffee for children who previously drank milk.” When describing the plight of West Virginia mining families, a state union leader said, “Their diet is potatoes, bread, beans, oleomargarine, but not meat, except sow-belly two or three times a week. The company won’t let the miners keep cows or pigs and the children almost never have fresh milk. Only a few get even canned milk.”

There’s no question — milk was the best food. The government sent McCollum, the guy who discovered vitamins, around the country, where in his lectures he said:

Who are the peoples who have achieved, who have become large, strong, vigorous people, who have reduced their infant mortality, who have the best trades in the world, who have an appreciation for art and literature and music, who are progressive in science and every activity of the human intellect? They are the people who have patronized the dairy industry.

Normal milk wasn’t enough for these people, so in 1933 they developed a line of “wonder foods” around the idea of combining milk with different kinds of cereals. They called them: Milkorno, Milkwheato, and Milkoat. These products are about what you would expect, but the reception was feverish:  

With great fanfare, Rose introduced Milkorno, the first of the cereals, at Cornell’s February 1933 Farm & Home Week, where the assembled dignitaries—including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president-elect—were fed a budget meal that included a Milkorno polenta with tomato sauce. The price tag per person was 6½ cents. FERA chose Milkwheato (manufactured under the Cornell Research Foundation’s patent) to add to its shipments of surplus foods, contracting with the Grange League Federation and the Ralston Purina Company to manufacture it. … Milkwheato and its sister cereals represented the pinnacle of scientifically enlightened eating. Forerunners to our own protein bars and nutritional shakes, they were high in nutrients, inexpensive, and nonperishable. White in color and with no pronounced flavor of their own, they were versatile too. Easily adapted to a variety of culinary applications, they boosted the nutritional value of whatever dish they touched. They could be baked into muffins, cookies, biscuits, and breads; stirred into chowders and chili con carne; mixed into meat loaf; and even used in place of noodles in Chinese chop suey.

We had always assumed that the American obsession with milk was the result of the dairy lobby trying to push more calcium on us than we really need. And maybe this is partially true. But public opinion of dairy has fallen so far from the rabid heights of the 1930s that now we wonder if milk might actually be underestimated. Is the dairy lobby asleep at the wheel? Still resting on their laurels? Anyways, if you want to eat the way your ancestors ate back in the 1920s, the authentic way to start your day off right is by drinking a nice tall pint of milk.

[1] : There might be a class element here? The authors say, “FDR recoiled from the plebeian food foisted on him as president; perhaps no dish was more off-putting to him than what home economists referred to as ‘salads,’ assemblages made from canned fruit, cream cheese, gelatin, and mayonnaise.”


PART II HERE

7 thoughts on “Book Review: A Square Meal – Part I: Foods of the ‘20s and ‘30s

  1. I grew up drinking a lot of milk (cereal in the morning, milk with lunch, and a couple of glasses of milk with dinner).

    On the one hand, I figure that drinking so much milk probably helped give me strong bones and make me into a healthy adult. On the other hand, nowadays when I drink milk, I find myself running for the toilet not long afterwards. Not sure if that was a problem that I developed later in life or if I had that problem as a kid, too, and just don’t remember it.

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    1. As a fan of food history, I really appreciated this. For further reading, I’d recommend “First Bite” by Bee Wilson, if you haven’t already read it. Wilson is a food historian and everything I’ve read from her is chock full of surprises and perspective on the past.

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  2. After seven years of a vegan diet, eating some milk chocolate made me think I had become lactose intolerant. However, I can drink raw milk just fine (and it’s delicious). I think one reason for milk’s bad rep these days is that most people only consume pasteurized milk and its derivatives, as opposed to the fresh milk humans had consumed for thousands of years.

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  3. Regarding milk, didn’t most US dairy lobby groups start in the 1900s and 19-teens? So the twenties milk mania could easily have been created by them already.

    Side note: amused that the “farm lunches” are just normal food even today in North Carolina.

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