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A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper, 2016. Pp.314. $15.99.

A Square Meal is a highly entertaining book tackling the food history of the Great Depression. In it, the authors have combined many threads of the story: how nutritionists thought Americans should eat in the face of economic collapse; how families faced with shortages actually ate; and how politicians thought about and inadequately addressed the problem of hunger. The authors put their work into a larger historical context, examining how World War I changed the government's and the public's approach to food, as well as American food traditions in the years leading up to the Depression.

The authors begin with World War I and the food lessons generated by that conflict. They also spend a significant amount of time discussing food in both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt's White Houses, making clear that food took on contrasting political meanings in each. In the Hoover White House, opulent dining was meant to signify that the Depression was temporary and business as usual should dominate. The frugal, scientifically formulated meals the Roosevelts ate and inflicted on their guests reflected Eleanor Roosevelts solidarity with the poor and malnourished and her desire to promote progressive and scientific ideas about food, even if the results could be ghastly. The authors do a good job of explaining the meals families ate, born of hardship, and the inadequacies of the government's food programs. Social policy played tug of war with agricultural policy, and nutritionists strived, but failed, to really understand the depths of the hunger problem they faced. While the federal government worked hard to sell the casserole, white sauce, and other sturdy meals to a needy populace, many families lacked even the most basic of foods. Relief programs never provided adequately for everyone who was hungry. The solution to the problems of a hungry nation would come with the full employment of World War II.

A Square Meal is entertaining, and well written. It is, however, not entirely satisfactory from a scholarly point of view. The most serious problem with the book is a general lack of documentation. The authors provide citations for some materials, but not others, leaving the reader to wonder if what they have written is as carefully researched as it seems. Case in point is the story of the Dust Bowl. The authors do note that the vast majority of Dust Bowl residents stuck it out on the Great Plains, rather than migrating to California, Oregon, or other points west. The authors, however, seem to betray a lack of research by jumping almost immediately to the migrant story, in which they lean heavily on the Grapes of Wrath, which firstly is fictional, and secondly is not a Dust Bowl story. There was a Dust Bowl story they could have told, and told by reference to good secondary materials, but it simply is not in the text. In another spot (236), the authors claim that the federal government paid farmers to mechanize both the cotton and the wheat harvests, which is completely untrue. The cotton harvest waited for mechanization until the post-World War II period, and neither its, nor wheat's, mechanization was paid for by the government. Farmers bought their own equipment. There is also a bit of flatness to the Midwestern farm story as presented, which does not acknowledge severe droughts in 1934 and 1936, and the challenges of feeding a family when farm commodities have lost most of their value. Problems such as these make me wonder what other lurking errors are in the text, waiting to be discovered by specialists in other areas of history.

This is an easily read book, filled with numerous good stories and interesting information. The authors have made the sad topic of food in the Great Depression lively. Given some of the problems with the research, I am not sure that I would assign it as a whole to an undergraduate food history class. I might pick and choose chapters to assign, based on my level of comfort that the research behind their story was sound. The book does provide some very good leads to primary source materials, many of which could themselves be used to write lectures or assigned as reading materials for undergraduates. In other words, this book is a useful resource, even if I am not sold on it as completely accurate history.

Iowa State University

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg
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Author:Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela
Publication:Teaching History: A Journal of Methods
Date:Sep 22, 2019
Words:749
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