Book Review — A Square Meal

A Square Meal by Jane Ziegelman, Andrew Coe

A Square Meal
Jane Ziegelman, Andrew Coe
Harper Collins, 2016

The United States is known as “the land of plenty” but there were points in history when that was absolutely not the case. During most of the 1930s, unemployment was high, crops failed due to drought, and much of the US population was subjected to famine conditions.

In A Square Meal, food historians Jane Ziegelman (97 Orchard) and Andrew Coe (Chop Suey), trace the food situation in the US from the boom days after the first world war to the stock market crash of the late 1920s and the crop failure of the early 1930s, spending a lot of time exploring various government programs to help feed people, and how they progressed with starts and stops over the decade as funding sources disappeared.

Ziegelman and Coe spend a great deal of time discussing the meals of the Roosevelts (FDR was President through much of the depression) in comparison to the poverty rations and bread lines that the average American was forced to survive on. Eleanor Roosevelt passed off the running of the household side of the White House to a housekeeper/cook named Henrietta Nesbitt who, by all accounts, was a terrible cook, who served visiting dignitaries sparse, bland, poorly-prepared meals. (For more on the Roosevelts and Nesbitt, check out the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt in Laura Shapiro’s What She Ate.)

There’s also a lot of content about home economics, which became a huge trend in the 1920s, and how that affected what people ate, both by choice and in terms of what they were offered in terms of food aid. A character named Aunt Sammy was created by the Bureau of Home Economics of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide advice to US women trying to manage households. Interestingly, Aunt Sammy was a scripted column that was sent out to regional radio stations and presented by a local actress with that region’s dialect, so folks in Oklahoma would hear a different Aunt Sammy than listeners in Boston or Maine, in order to have people consider the advice more seriously.

The authors appear to have tag-teamed on various chapters so there isn’t always a clear narrative throughout the book, which makes it a bit dry and almost technical in places. Some bits (hobos, bread lines, the obvious racism towards African-Americans when it came to aid) are more interesting/horrifying than others. Also distressing is the amount of food that was destroyed by farmers because it had depreciated to the point that they would lose money trying to sell it, all while people across the country were starving.

Despite the occasional dry patch, A Square Meal is still a really informative work that offers a greater understanding of US foodways, trends, and attitudes, and demonstrates the base that current food systems were built upon.

A Food Writer’s Favourite Food Books

fashionable880If you ask most people, their best-loved books about food are probably cookbooks. They likely don’t actually cook from these tomes but rather consider them light entertainment, to be read in bed, provoking dreams of meals they’ll probably never prepare. As someone who spends most of the day reading and writing about food, books have to have a unique point of view or subject matter to catch my interest, and especially to earn a permanent spot on my shelf.

These are a few of my favourites, chosen mostly for their diversity in demonstrating different styles of food, cooking and eating. There are no celebrity names here, no flashy TV shows to help sell these titles, and no well known food writing personalities, but I think they cover an interesting cross-section of food writing and food history.

bakingbioBaking as Biography – A Life Story in Recipes by Diane Tye
What if the person whose cooking you most admire actually hates to cook? Diane Tye relates the story of growing up as the daughter of a minister in 1970s New Brunswick. Her mother, responsible for preparing food for weekly church functions, drew on recipes from various sources depending on who she was cooking for. Tye’s narration is sometimes clinical, observing food trends as they related to social norms, and sometimes familial and romanticized as she discusses her mother cooking dishes for the family. The book is often uneven as Tye relies too much on interviews with family members as opposed to either strict analysis or her own personal memories, but it’s such a vividly accurate picture of foodways in Atlantic Canada that it is one of my favourite food books.

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