Thursday, November 09, 2017

What they didn't eat!

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression offers a very depressing account of starvation, deprivation, and in many cases the worst of government maltreatment of people who mostly didn't cause their own difficulties. Authors Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe did a good job of researching, organizing, and presenting a great amount of historic material. I enjoyed their use of specific stories of people, small towns, rural areas, big cities, and different parts of the country to illustrate the big picture of devastating years of hardship in a once-prosperous country.

Ziegelman and Coe clearly explain the horrors of Hoover and the Republican response to the crises of the late 1920s and the Democrats' post-1932 improved but often inadequate solutions. Many government projects that I had only heard of now are clearer to me -- the CCC, the WPA, farm aid, food stamps, and others.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's actions and attitudes turned out to be very interesting; I was unaware of many of the details of just what they did in trying to help Americans, and how White House meals became politicized. Recently, in Laura Shapiro's book What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories, I read another version of Eleanor's food practices. Ziegelman and Coe's account is an interesting variation on that story. (My review here: Laura Shapiro Strikes Again!)

The role of home economists and nutrition theorists throughout the era is very revealing. The book begins by discussing government food policy during World War I when the US was extremely effective in designing programs to feed the troops sent to Europe, and also effective in encouraging the people at home to make use of the alternative foods that were left after much was sent overseas. The early chapters also describe the huge and wonderful typical meals served to farmhands -- to contrast them with the rural starvation that followed economic collapse at the end of the 1920s.

Government advice on how people could eat when they had virtually no money is a scary topic. Official recommendations on how to survive on a starvation diet seemed incredibly unfeeling: the provision of jobs or food or money would have been so much more humane! Nutritionists and others who wrote the recommendations weren't necessarily at fault because they didn't make the policies, only tried to deal with them. It's no fun to learn about starvation, even about people who died of starvation, and about politicizing the topic, but this book finds a useful and readable way to handle the material.

Temptation is strong to compare government policy during the Depression to current efforts to undo the social safety net that's been developed since then. The view that people are lazy and want to live off the government has persisted without end from then to now as a justification for being blind to suffering and being cruel to the unfortunate. I think the harsh attitudes of elected officials towards needy people both now and then is horrifying, but I'll leave it at that.

9 comments:

Judee Algazi said...

Mae,
Good review of a sad but intreating book.

Jackie Mc Guinness said...

I am going to look for this book!

Kari said...

I think I'd like this, although like is perhaps not entirely the right word for a sad topic. Thanks for the review.

Vicki said...

Sounds interesting to me, especially since my parents were born in the 20's.

Beth F said...

I really liked this. I thought it was well presented

Carole said...

How interesting. Have a great week. Cheers from Carole's Chatter

My Cozy Book Nook said...

While this does not sound like a book I particularly want to read... it does sound like one I must read. Thank you.

Linda aka Crafty Gardener said...

An interesting book, I'm sure it applies to other countries as well.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

I love history books and food books, so this is one I will look for.