This blogger once heard a man who experienced the Great Depression talk about making "tomato soup" by dumping ketchup (or catsup) into a pot of boiling water on a hot plate. Yum! Good eatin' when you don't have two nickels to rub together. If this is a (fair & balanced) account of making do in hard times, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
“Enough Is Better Than A Feast”: Christmas Dinner In The Time Of The Great Depression
By Talia Lavin
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman, a husband-and-wife team of authors and food historians, host their dinner parties in a broad Brooklyn Heights kitchen designed to resemble a nineteen-thirties schoolroom: red cupboards, wood counters that groan with the accumulated weight of cookbooks. Although Coe and Ziegelman once co-wrote a history of foie gras, their latest project is A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (2016), a thick volume that examines a complex decade in American dining. On a recent evening, the couple prepared a Christmas meal demonstrative of the period’s most cutting-edge culinary wisdom, pieced together from Depression-era radio scripts once voiced by Aunt Sammy, the sensible, matronly mascot of the US Bureau of Home Economics.
Coe, gray-haired and compact, spiked a pot of cider with a generous tot of apple-flavored moonshine. Ziegelman, equally petite and dressed primly in black, dipped into a fridge stocked with varicolored Mason jars to put together Aunt Sammy’s recommended appetizer: tomato juice topped with a sprig of curly parsley. This is typical Depression fare: easy on the stomach and on the homemaker, to be poured straight from a can, and, in deference to the festive day, holiday-colored in red and green. While the couple’s cat, Ruby, oversaw the proceedings, Ziegelman next threw together a simple creamed spinach, slicing fat slabs of butter with practiced ease.
The couple first crossed paths in the nineteen-eighties, when both were part of the raucous New York publishing scene. Their first date unfolded at Exterminator Chili, a since-shuttered downtown eatery, and then at a launch party for a sleazy thriller called “Panic Blood.” They married in 1996.
Coe’s interest in food history was first stoked in childhood; his mother, Sophie Coe, was an anthropologist and a food historian, and the author of the books America’s First Cuisines (1994) and The True History of Chocolate (2013). Coe, who is one of five siblings, recalls a childhood spent clustered around a dinner table laden with exotic dishes, including the Chinese fare his father favored after a stint in Taiwan with the CIA. Coe’s own interest in that cuisine culminated in a book called Chop Suey, published in 2009, which explores the tumultuous cultural and culinary journey of Chinese food in America. (The couple’s eldest son, a student at Oberlin College, speaks Mandarin fluently.)
Ziegelman is the director of the culinary center at the Tenement Museum, and the author of 97 Orchard (2010), which explores the culinary traditions of five immigrant families in a New York tenement building at the turn of the twentieth century. Like Coe, she had already studied the food of poverty, what people ate when they didn’t have enough. The Depression was a natural topic to explore. The couple began research for A Square Meal in 2010.
In their kitchen, the tantalizing smell of duck with peanut stuffing—au courant in Depression years, and Coe told me that the peanut recipe may have originated with George Washington Carver—rose from the oven. Bureau of Home Economics-approved holiday menus often featured a few simple dishes, rather than the lush, elaborate repasts of earlier generations, but “holiday fowl” were often included in Christmastime food relief, even in the early, devastating days of the Depression. Aunt Sammy might have approved less highly of the Sicilian wine—white, to accompany the light fare—or of the moonshine-spiked cider, which flowed throughout the meal to accompany the conversation.
The couple’s seventh-grade son, Edward, groaned when his parents announced a Depression-themed dinner. This wasn’t his first encounter with nineteen-thirties cuisine. “My least favorite was the lima-bean loaf,” he said.
“Lima-bean loaf really wasn’t the worst,” Ziegelman said. “We made this one thing—”
“—a meat-based granulated jello with canned corned beef,” Coe said. “The whole apartment smelled like cat food.”
“I think they just had more of a tolerance for bad canned food back then,” Ziegelman said.
Loaves and casseroles were the centerpieces of Bureau of Home Economics cuisine: easy to make with cheap ingredients, and to spike with healthy but unlovable foods like canned meat, liver, or lima beans. The new approach—guided by the relatively new science of the calorie, and by a general zest for modern rationality of diet—emphasized thrift and health above enjoyment, and generally seemed to treat the notion of pleasurable food with suspicion. “Enough is better than a feast,” Aunt Sammy would say on her radio program, “Housekeepers’ Chat.”
Coe and Ziegelman researched their book separately, wrote alternating chapters, then edited each other’s contributions. From Ziegelman came a long and loving ode to rural housewives’ cooking in the decades prior to the Depression; from Coe, a dive into Herbert Hoover’s gilded disconnection from the starvation of the masses. A Square Meal is in some ways a curious work—a culinary history of privation—but the authors have created a compelling chronicle of both the suffering of the era and the ingenuity that arose in response, from the budget menus that newspapers printed to guide homemakers in cities to the barter economies that arose in the Midwest, where eggs could be traded for just about anything. It’s also a story of the White House, about the shift from Hoover’s cult of deprivation to the political vision—and shortcomings—of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To Coe and Ziegelman’s credit, the stories of Americans like Rowena May Pope, who was threatened at gunpoint while foraging gooseberries along a railroad track, are treated with no less avid consideration than the intricacies of food policy, and all come together in a sweeping narrative of hunger and its consequences. “It’s just a huge topic: politics, and the country, and the city,” Coe said.
On the table in Brooklyn, the two lay out the creamed spinach, duck, and a salad dressed with oil, vinegar, and red and green peppers. “A thrifty Christmas can be just as good and just as Christmassy as one planned with all the frills,” Aunt Sammy advised listeners in December of 1931. “Aunt Sammy was kind of a killjoy,” Coe told me. “I think there should be feast days and fast days. . . . And Christmas, Thanksgiving—they’re feast days.”
“I like Aunt Sammy. Her persona was kind of blunt, impolitic,” Ziegelman said. “The general idea was, ‘Grandma was wrong. We know better.’ You can kind of see it from the nineteen-thirties to the sixties.”
While Jane prepared handmade whipped cream to top dessert, Andrew showed me their office, a room lined with bookshelves and wobbly piles of books and papers: there are sections on Chinese food and on immigrant cuisines, and dozens of yellowed nineteen-thirties cookbooks rub shoulders with general culinary tomes in multiple languages, fat with knowledge of dish after dish.
The crowning, final glory of the Christmas meal was straight from the thin, browned pages of “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes”: a takeoff on plum pudding made with raisins and the addition, of course, of gelatin.
“My mother used to prepare plum pudding a year in advance,” Coe said. “We used to have these rich, dark puddings—sometimes four, five years old, with dozens of ingredients.”
“This is easier,” Ziegelman said, removing the chilled mold from the fridge and filling a tray with hot water to loosen the pudding within.
After a few tries, the pudding was dislodged onto a black-and-white-spotted plate, a trembling ring running with milky juices. It tasted surprisingly pleasant—more chocolate mousse than raisin jello, with a snap of walnuts to add texture to each bite.
“I think people liked gelatin because it was a way of controlling food,” Ziegelman said, while Coe apportioned slabs of the pudding and dollops of whipped cream beside each. “It was a way of turning it from amorphous to manmade, geometric.”
Today’s food tastes share little in common with Aunt Sammy’s, Coe said. “She saw kitchen work as an adversary. Now everything’s supposed to be homemade—artisanal—slow.”
Edward, who loathes gelatin, declined the pudding, but ate his whipped cream quickly with a spoon and retired to his room. “In a way, we’re still rebuking Aunt Sammy,” Ziegelman said. “We’re still reacting against our parents—against what came before.” ###
[Talia Lavin is a fact-checker at The New Yorker. In 2012, she spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine. Lavin received a BA (comparative literature) from Harvard University.]
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