Book Review: A Square Meal, by Jane Zeigelman and Andrew Coe.

Food history is a fascinating subject. No matter where you are in the world, or when you are in the course of human history, you’ve gotta eat. It’s one of those universal things that’s absolutely ripe for study– and something I’ve touched on briefly before.

I first heard about Jane Zeigelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Depression on NPR– which probably tells you just how boring I am sometimes. And, when I stumbled across the book at the local library, I thought I’d give it a go. Not only do I love food history, but I read enough pulp and noir that I figured I might as well learn what all those private detectives and femme fatales would eat between cases.


A Square Meal covers American food for pretty much the first half of the 20th century. Even if it weren’t for the whole ‘depression’ thing, it’d be a time of great change for American food. (Zeigelman and Coe make the point that every time period is one of great change for American food, but still). Not only was there an influx of immigration, but around the start of the 20th century there was a surge in processed, pre prepared foods (canned, refrigerated, or frozen) along with the dawning science of nutrition– which in turn led to various health fads and trend diets, because humans are predictable like that.

With newly discovered nutrition facts in mind, multiple government agencies soon set to work during the great depression to make sure millions of Americans weren’t just fed, but also fed “properly.” Which led in some ‘interesting’ directions, as one could expect. For one, taste was one of the last things nutritionists and charity workers were worried about– the line of thought was that if the handout food actually tasted, y’know, good, people would be inspired to stay poor.

Period racism was also a major factor at play, ranging from black sharecroppers simply not getting enough food from the local government aid agencies, to individual aid agents deciding how much food a family would get based on their ethnicity. So an Italian family was expected to subsist on canned tomatoes and pasta, while a black laborer was given a chicken every now and again in order to ‘keep his strength up.’

Really, when you ask “what did people eat during the great depression?” The answer usually is “not enough.” It’s one of those terrible ironies that a country as productive as the United States cranked out literal tons of meat and produce– which then was wasted and thrown away because it simply cost the farmers too much to ship or process it. Later government programs would start buying up this surplus and distributing it, but it wasn’t a perfect process.

A lot of the points brought up in A Square Meal are still resonant today. Various fad diets and nutrition studies are pretty much a fact of modern life, for one. Additionally, a lot of Republican arguments against government charity are strikingly familiar to arguments made to this very day. Some things never change, I guess.

Politics aside, A Square Meal is full of fascinating little tidbits about American food culture. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, was a notoriously terrible cook/menu planner, to the point where other politicians and officials would fill up at home before big White House dinners. Or, in another amusing point, the convenience of corner delicatessens was decried by some as being a plague on society, due to the moral and nutritional superiority of home-cooked food. Really, you could write a whole book about the Industrial Revolution in the Kitchen, and its effect on society, and I’m sure someone (or probably several someones) already has.

So yeah. A Square Meal is a neat viewpoint into a tumultuous time in American history, and well worth a read for anybody with an interest in the period and/or food history. It’s even got a couple of recipes scattered about, in case you really, really wanted to find out what, say, pea & liver loaf tastes like. I think I’ll hold off on that, myself.


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