Book Review — A Square Meal

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.