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How Americans Ate During The Great Depression

Residents of a Manhattan Hooverville preparing food in a mobile drum, in a photo from 1932.
HarperCollins
Residents of a Manhattan Hooverville preparing food in a mobile drum, in a photo from 1932.
How Americans Ate During The Great Depression
How Americans Ate During The Great Depression GUEST: Andrew Coe, co-author, "A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression"

How about this? Celery soup mixed with tunafish and mass potatoes? A salad of corn beef and gelatin and canned peas? Baked onions stuffed with Peter better? These are some of the recipes that Americans turned to during the Great Depression when families struggle to get nutritious food. Andrew is the co-author of this book. He will talk about his work this weekend. He spoke with the midday edition producer, Michael Lipkin. You write about what families had to work with during the great depression, what would a family with Martin Fowler in potatoes and tumbleweeds eat? They did not have much to eat. The apposite was trying to fill their stomachs. With lard, you had fat and you would use that fat to fried potatoes. Maybe you could wash it down with coffee. If you had flour, you could use the fat to make this. You had Cornell, you could make cornbread. You write about dishes that people eight like creamed cabbage. Another dish, you describe it as a salad of canned fruit, cream cheese and gelatin and mayonnaise. I have to say that does not sound that appetizing but I am sure taste changes but what did they think of it back then? They thought these salads were the cutting edge of food at the time. They were using the new products like powdered flavored gelatin. At the same time, they were trying to put Terry products into everything because dairy products were the most perfect food. Everybody had to eat them morning noon and night. With your gelatin salad, you would have cream cheese or with cream in it so you could pack on more dairy food or protein and various vitamins. Why was milk seen as a want of food? Back according to nutritional knowledge of the time, the scientists, they decided that milk was the healthiest food for children and adults. It was like the wonder food. Certainly, better than vegetables or meets or fruits. They were trying to push milk as many ways as possible. Did you make or try any of the dishes that you write about? Yes. We tried the dishes. We have a lot of recipes in the book. They are things like liver loaf and other yummy dishes. We did try them and force them upon our children as well. Our children were not so enthusiastic. The thing about this dishes that we tried, the foods of the depression, these were dishes where the home economists who were helping with food relief, they were pushing because they were cheap and also packed with nutrients. They also reflected the culture food at the time. That meant they were bland but very filling. Were they -- did they sound worse than they were? Did they make it into your repertoire of recipes? No. They have not made it into our daily recipe rotation that some of them are not bad. If you use budget vegetables like parsnips are turnips, you can make boiled turnips with a little cheese and bread crumbs. That would be acceptable in a lot of French bistro cuisine. That would be a good situs. Some dishes can be tasty but taste was not the main thing that they were thinking about. You mentioned this. They used to have a Bureau of home economics around this time and experts were trying to teach Americans cheap ways to feed families with wholesome meals. What was the latest science that they were relying on? There was a series of breakthroughs in nutrition science. The first one was by Wilbur Atwater who was the guy who popularized the concept of the calorie. The next was the discovery of vitamins. Those were being discovered at that time. People were fascinated by the idea of vitamins. They were not sure what they were because they were invisible. You only needed minute quantities but they tried to pack as many vitamins into their food..net dairy products and also leafy green vegetables that was the big thing at the time. Many of the dishes, these were plan on purpose but many immigrants relied on spices like garlic and pepper that provided labor and taste. What prevented the types of spices that they relied upon from breaking into the wider American cuisine? That is a great tragedy of the Great Depression. This was a road we could've taken but that was looking to the example of the immigrants and how the immigrants eight. A lot of immigrants came from countries like China or Italy or Greece where the there was a cuisine of property where they had a tradition of occasional starvation's. People knew how to cook great food with very little and how to make a tasty. Let's say the Italian immigrants who came to the big cities and the mining towns during the 1920s and 1930s, one thing they would do would be to go to vacant lots in the springtime and collect brawl dandelion greens and fry them. That is a tasty and simple and nutrition rich dish. But the home economists did not want to follow that example. Ehrlich was not part of their repertoire. They were into Americanizing the cuisine of the immigrants. They did not want to encourage immigrants to keep cooking there and foods. What is the legacy during the depression that we can still see today? Back by far, the biggest legacy, it is the idea that the food we eat at the base foundation level is just nutrition. We are eating a combination of nutrients and we have to figure out the right combination of nutrients in order to protect the health of our families. We have on the side of cereal boxes, the recommended daily allowances and the nutrition information. That is the biggest legacy. The food that we started eating during the Great Depression, people were anxious to stop eating as soon as they could. The depression ended at World War II and that started a period of rationing. We were having problems with food. At the end of World War II, Americans wanted to go back to eating steak and potatoes and hamburgers, a heavy meet rich diet, to eat the food they have been deprived of. That was the co-author of a square meal speaking with Michael Lipkin. He will be at the Central Library downtown. Watch the evening edition at 5:00 or 6:30 tonight. We will have news of the budget plan. Join us again or KPBS Midday Edition. If there is a segment you missed, check out the podcast. I am Allison St. John and thank you for listening.

Celery soup mixed with tuna fish and mashed potatoes. A salad of corned beef, gelatin and canned peas. Baked onion stuffed with peanut butter.

Those are just some of the recipes Americans turned to during the Great Depression, when many families struggled to eat enough nutritious food.

Food historian Andrew Coe said the emphasis during the Depression was less about what foods tasted like and more on how cheap and "wholesome" meals could be. The U.S. Bureau of Home Economics at the time disfavored some of the spices in immigrant cuisines like garlic and pepper, for example, which they considered stimulants that could make people even hungrier.

Coe co-authored the recent book, "A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression," and will be talking about his work Saturday for the Culinary Historians of San Diego. He joined KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to share some of the Depression-era recipes he tried and whether any are appealing to modern palettes.

Book Event

Where: San Diego Central Public Library, 330 Park Blvd., San Diego

When: Saturday, April 15, 10:30 a.m.

Cost: Free