Creamed, Canned And Frozen: How The Great Depression Revamped U.S. Diets

Aug 15, 2016
Originally published on August 16, 2016 8:34 am

Do people think about food more in times of scarcity than in times of plenty? Married culinary historians Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe think so. Ziegelman and Coe are the authors of A Square Meal, which examines the impact of the country's decade-long Great Depression on American diets.

Ziegelman tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the Depression was one of the "most important food moments" in U.S. history. Coe agrees: "The Great Depression was a time when Americans had food front and foremost in their minds and were worrying about it every day."

Cheap, nutritious and filling food was prioritized — often at the expense of taste. One recipe, which Ziegelman describes as "wrong in every possible way," combined canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar and lemon juice.

"One of the really interesting characteristics of these Depression menus is that the ingredients seem to have nothing to say to one another," Ziegelman says. "Whatever [the ingredients] taste like together is not particularly relevant."


Interview Highlights

On an example of a Depression-era dinner

Andy Coe: Now when people eat spaghetti, people know that as in Italy, it has to be al dente, like cooked, let's say, nine minutes or something like that, so it's still a little bit crunchy. But this spaghetti you were supposed to cook for 25 minutes. So already we're starting out with the mushy texture. And then you boiled carrots until they're incredibly soft, and then you make white sauce, which was the sauce which is poured over everything for budget meals during the Great Depression. It's a mixture of milk, flour, salt and either butter or margarine, with maybe a little bit of pepper. So it's like a thick and creamy sauce, and you mix all these ingredients into a tray and bake it, and you have a kind of like thick, mushy, bland casserole. Bland is really the operative word here. It does not have much flavor, and it wasn't really supposed to have much flavor. What it was was a vehicle for nutrition and nutrients, but it wasn't supposed to make you excited about food.

On the enhancement of school lunches during the Depression

Jane Ziegelman: The very beginning of the school lunch movement is the turn of the 20th century, and it's launched by progressives who believed that poor kids, if they were going to perform well in school, needed to be well-nourished. So it grows out of that progressive impulse. During the Depression it became apparent that not only poor kids but kids that came from formerly middle-class families suddenly were hungry. These were children that came from families of the new poor, and school was one of the places where they could find nourishment.

On sample school lunch menus

Ziegelman: This was the New York school lunch service. These were foods that were prepared in one central location and then shipped across the city in heated trucks — so it's a logistically crazy operation — and when your truck arrived, well this is what you would have ... for instance, every Tuesday, [there was] pea soup without milk; Italian spaghetti with onion and tomato sauce; white rolls, buttered. For dessert, chocolate pudding served with milk. You'll notice that milk comes up again and again in these menus, because of the tremendous importance that nutritionists placed on milk.

On Friday you would have a lima bean and barley soup; jam or fish sandwich on whole-wheat bread; creamed carrots with peas or creamed cabbage or mashed turnips; vanilla cornstarch pudding and chocolate sauce.

On experts overlooking the cheap, delicious meals that were popular within immigrant communities at the time

Ziegelman: One of the travesties of the period is that all of those home economists did not look to America's immigrant communities for inspiration. If they had, they would've found a gold mine of highly nutritious, highly economic foods, that also taste fantastic. But for a whole variety of reasons, cultural and culinary, they never took that opportunity. ...

Coe: The food that Italian immigrants ate was certainly cheap and delicious and highly nutritious. I just think of the Italian immigrant women in New York City and wherever else they lived; during the early spring the dandelion greens would start coming up in the parks in the vacant lots. And they would go out and collect dandelion greens, take them home, and saute them in a little olive oil. ... You want vitamins, there's a great source of vitamins! ... They didn't eat much meat because meat was expensive, but they had great pasta dishes, which were very good, filled with flavor and filled with nutrients. It's tragic that we didn't look to their example for foods to eat during the Great Depression, but that wasn't "science," and also that was "un-American."

On the belief that spicy food made people nervous

Ziegelman: Spicy foods were [considered] stimulants. They were classified as stimulants, so they were on that same continuum along with caffeine and alcohol all the way up to cocaine and heroin. And if you started with an olive, you might find yourself one day addicted to opiates. It put you on a very slippery slope — watch out for olives!

On why food-relief meals were purposely bland

Coe: One of the things about the people who were overseeing food relief and the home economists, one of their beliefs was that the blandness wasn't bad because "nobody was ever killed by monotony." They were killed by not having enough nutrients, and if it didn't taste good ... They didn't want people to be too excited by the budget foods, because they wanted to force people to get jobs and to earn enough money to buy spices and seasonings. ... When they were handing out relief boxes, they deliberately didn't add such things as mustard and vinegar with the relief boxes, because they didn't want people to become too happy with receiving food relief.

On how today's emphasis on fresh food is a modern phenomenon

Ziegelman: This infatuation that we have with food that's fresh, just off the farm and crisp and sweet, that didn't really hold much water for Depression-era cooks who were more entranced with modern, frozen foods. That was the miracle food! And canned foods that came in every variety and which, according to the advertisers, were made from better ingredients that were actually fresher than the fresh food that you bought at the grocery store. So things were a little bit turned on their heads. There were people during the Depression who were beginning to recognize that. And you can see toward the end of the 1930s, the beginnings of what we might call the kind of fresh, local and regional food movement.


Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about food, but you probably won't want to eat any of the recipes you're about to hear. They're from the Great Depression, when many Americans were broke and hungry and needed cheap, nutritious and filling food. I think you'll be surprised by what the experts were recommending in the 1930s as tasty and nutritious.

My guests are Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, authors of the new book, "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." They're married, and have also written solo books about food history. Andrew Coe is the author of "Chop Suey: A Cultural History Of Chinese Food In The United States." Jane Ziegelman is the author of "97 Orchard Street: An Edible History Of Five Immigrant Families." She curates food-themed events for the Tenement Museum in New York.

Andrew Coe, Jane Ziegelman, welcome to FRESH AIR. What made you think about writing about food during the Depression?

ANDREW COE: Well, both of us had written books about food history, aspects of American food history. And when we finished those, we were - we realized that the Great Depression was a time when Americans had food sort of front and foremost in their minds and were worrying about it every day. And it really became, like, one of the most important topics of the era. And so this was a time when, you know, food history, really - and food, really - meant a lot to Americans. And the more we looked, the more we realized what an important sort of turning point it was for American culinary history.

GROSS: So because so many families had little or no food, school lunches became really important. Is this the beginning of schools serving lunches and taking some responsibility for their students' nutrition?

JANE ZIEGELMAN: Well, actually, no. It's not the very beginning. The very beginning of the school lunch movement is the turn of the 20th century. And it's launched by progressives who believed that poor kids, if they were going to perform well in school, needed to be well-nourished. So it grows out of that progressive impulse. During the Depression, it became apparent that not only poor kids, but kids that came from formerly middle-class families suddenly were hungry. These were children that came from families of the new poor. And school was one of the places where they could find nourishment.

GROSS: And so the menus were created to be nutritious...

ZIEGELMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...And filling. But I have to say, reading some of the menus that you've offered in your book, they sound pretty awful - can I say that?

ZIEGELMAN: Yes, that's absolutely true.

GROSS: Let me ask you to read. You have, like, a Monday-through-Friday set of menus that were offered. Who offered these?

ZIEGELMAN: This was the New York School lunch service. These were foods that were prepared in one central location and then shipped across the city in heated trucks. So it was sort of a crazy - logistically, a kind of crazy operation. And when your truck arrived, well, this is what you would have for Tuesday, for instance, every Tuesday - pea soup without milk, Italian spaghetti with onion and tomato sauce, white rolls - buttered, and for dessert, chocolate pudding served with milk.

And you'll notice that milk comes up again and again in these menus because of the tremendous importance that nutritionists placed on milk. Friday, we'll find more milk. On Friday, you would have a lima bean and barley soup, jam or fish sandwich on whole wheat bread, creamed carrots with peas or creamed cabbage or mashed turnips, vanilla corn starch pudding and chocolate sauce.

GROSS: What jumps out at me at these menus is on Tuesday - pea soup and spaghetti. I know people are hungry. And the important thing is to give them food. But pea soup and spaghetti seem to clash in a very violent way to me.

ZIEGELMAN: Yes, well, that's - it's one of the really interesting characteristics of these Depression menus is that the ingredients seem to have nothing to say to one another on an aesthetic or sensory level. They were there to supply certain nutrients. And whatever they taste like together is not particularly relevant to the people planning these menus.

GROSS: I'm also thinking that mashed turnips and creamed cabbage were probably not really popular dishes for children. But I suppose when you're really hungry, it doesn't matter that much.

ZIEGELMAN: It did matter.

GROSS: It did matter. Yeah. (Laughter). OK.

ZIEGELMAN: It did matter. There were certain foods that kids just would not eat. And one of them was the cream dishes. They just couldn't stomach it. Other foods, they did grow to learn to love. The spaghettis and the pastas, we can imagine kids liking. And they did.

GROSS: Absolutely.

ZIEGELMAN: These cream dishes were repugnant in the beginning. And they remained so.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting how our understanding of milk has changed over the years.

ZIEGELMAN: Yes.

GROSS: So many of the menus that you reprint here for adults and for children have milk at the center of it. And you say for children, it was recommended that they get a quart of milk a day and if that wasn't possible, at least a pint. So you had all these cream dishes plus milk as a beverage being served. Can you describe the difference between then and now and the importance that we place on milk in a child's diet?

ZIEGELMAN: Well, I can tell you that by the standards of Depression-era science, milk was considered a wonder food. It was considered a complete food, meaning that it hit all of the bells. It was a carbohydrate. It contained protein. It contained fat. It contained a range of vitamins and minerals and also sugar. So it gave energy.

No other food was considered, in that same sense, complete. Today, we do not look at milk as this kind of haloed food but one part of a complicated diet.

GROSS: My understanding from your book is that part of what these school lunches were supposed to do is enlighten the children of immigrants about what American food was like because there was this emphasis on trying to move immigrants away from their foods to more American foods. So in what ways were the school-lunch programs designed to do that?

ZIEGELMAN: Well, the school lunches played a double role. On one hand, they provided nutrition. On the other hand, they provided education. They were sort of culinary learning centers where children from highly diverse backgrounds learned what it meant to eat like an American.

And this was at a time when many, what we would call immigrant cuisines or ethnic cuisines, contained elements that did not conform with ideas - conceptions of healthy eating. Most importantly perhaps, the ethnic cuisines were what people called highly seasoned. They contained garlic and pepper and onions and other sort of tasty seasonings, which artificially inflame the appetites and drew us to the wrong kind of foods.

In other words, there was a very strong prejudice, at this time, toward foods that were bland. And immigrant foods just had too much taste.

GROSS: Didn't you write, too, in your earlier book, that people were afraid that spicy foods would make people nervous and that that would be bad for America?

ZIEGELMAN: Absolutely. Spicy foods were stimulants. They were classified as stimulants. So they were on that same continuum along with caffeine and alcohol, all the way up to cocaine and heroin. And if you started with an olive, you might find yourself one day, you know, addicted to opiates. So it put you on a really slippery slope. Watch out for olives.

GROSS: (Laughter) Were olives considered...

COE: And pickles.

ZIEGELMAN: And pickles.

GROSS: Pickles, right, right. Because of all the vinegar?

ZIEGELMAN: Because of all the vinegar and all of the garlic.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests, Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe. They're the authors of the book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, authors of the new book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression."

OK. Let's move to the White House. During the Depression, when FDR is in the White House, he tried to set an example of how to eat healthy but cheap food. So they - with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, they changed the White House menu to set an example. So can you describe for us the budget White House menu?

COE: During FDR's presidency, his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, decided that this was a time when the White House kitchen and the food served in the White House had to be a kind of an example to the American people of how people should eat during the Great Depression, during this economic crisis. So one of the things she did is she enlisted the help of some very prominent home economists to come up with a budget menu of foods which were both inexpensive and supposedly tasty.

And one of the first people to taste these foods, perhaps the first victim, you could say, was the president himself during one of his office luncheons. They rolled a cart into his office because he usually ate at his desk. And on the cart were deviled eggs with tomato sauce, mashed potatoes and prune pudding.

These dishes - the cost of the ingredients was less than 10 cents. And of course, the foods were all very, very bland and filling, just exactly like home economists, nutritionists of the era - that's the kind of foods that they were promoting for the poor.

And the president pronounced them good, which may have been an overstatement. This was definitely not to his taste. I mean, he was the kind of guy who liked planked salmon, filet mignon, pate de foie gras, roast beef with bloody juices. You know, he was a man of his class. And he liked good food, and he liked rich food. But he swallowed it because his wife wanted him to.

GROSS: You know, prunes are on the menu there. There's a lot of menus that have prunes on it, a lot of recipes with prunes in it. Why was there such an emphasis on prunes during the Depression?

ZIEGELMAN: The sort of the premise - the underlying premise of the Depression diet is that it relied on the theory of substitution. Theory of substitution is the idea that you can take expensive foods - let's say beef and chicken, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables - and replace them with less expensive substitutes that will no less provide the same nutrients. So prunes in this substitution diet were the less expensive stand-in for fresh fruits.

GROSS: OK. Getting back to FDR's White House. There were salads served, and the "salads" - with quotation marks around salads.

ZIEGELMAN: Yes.

GROSS: And you describe the salads as assemblages made from canned fruit, cream cheese, gelatin and mayonnaise. That sounds really horrible, I have to - I feel so bad saying this. People are starving, and I'm passing judgment on the food (laughter) that they're eating.

But they're - they're just like, really - I'm going to repeat that - canned fruit, cream cheese, gelatin and mayonnaise.

COE: And, you know, these foods now - we actually made some Depression-era salads from - we have a collection of Depression-era cookbooks. And we made one of them the other day. It was a corned beef luncheon salad. And this was made with canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar and lemon juice.

And it's just completely - you know, to today's food tastes, it's wrong in every way possible - just from the color to the smell, the texture, the flavor, the mouthfeel. It's, like, a completely different era. But this was considered, like, modern food in 1930. Gelatin was, like, a very cutting-edge food. They liked foods that were bright and colorful, a little bit sweet and also the foods that were kind of mushy and kind of slimy. And these salads really fit the bill.

ZIEGELMAN: I would also...

GROSS: So how did it taste when you made that recipe?

ZIEGELMAN: It was really dreadful. Not so much - you know, once you could get it in your mouth, it wasn't that bad. It was the visuals. The visuals were really off-putting. And then the smell - it's a little bit of a canned cat-food smell - was equally off-putting. If you could sort of hold your nose and close your eyes, the taste was - it was OK.

GROSS: What are some of the other recipes that you tried from the Depression era?

COE: Well, we made - one of the foods that Eleanor Roosevelt and the home economics people promoted was spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce. And now, you know, when people eat spaghetti, people know that, as in Italy, it has to be al dente, like, cooked, let's say, nine minutes or something like that so it's still a little bit crunchy. But this spaghetti, you were supposed to cook for 25 minutes. So already, it was - we're starting out with the mushy texture. And then you boiled carrots until they're incredibly soft. And then you make white sauce, which was, you know, the sauce which is poured over everything for budget meals during the Great Depression. It's a mixture - if you don't know, it's a mixture of milk, flour, salt and either butter or margarine, with maybe a little bit of pepper. So it's like a thick and creamy sauce. And you put - mix all of these ingredients into a tray and bake it. And you have a kind of, like, thick, mushy, bland casserole. And bland is really the operative word here. It does not have much flavor. And it really wasn't supposed to have much flavor. What it was, was a vehicle for nutrition and nutrients. But it wasn't supposed to make you excited about food.

ZIEGELMAN: An idea that I'm sort of wrestling with now as we're thinking back on these Depression foods is not so much that people didn't know what good food was. I don't - I think that's sort of presumptuous for us to assume that. What they thought was good food is very different than what we think is good food. And part of what gave appeal to these foods was not so much the ingredients that they were made from or the techniques that they were prepared with, but the ideas that were behind them. And the idea that you could get all of this nutrition into one simple casserole, that you could do it through science and stave off malnutrition made it an incredible food. The idea that you could use canned peas and canned corned beef and gelatin - these are all kind of foods that are a product of modern technology - and use these foods to serve your family made you a kind of cutting-edge homemaker. So there was an appeal to the foods that we're missing, just because we live in another time and in another food culture.

GROSS: So home economics really figures heavily into how meals were designed during the Great Depression. So is this the beginning of the home economics movement?

ZIEGELMAN: No, it's not the absolute beginning. Home economics really begins to gather momentum at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. It does, however - the Depression gave a new kind of prominence to home economists. It really made them into cultural heroes. And it was largely through their work that the country was successful in preventing a lot of the deficiency diseases that are associated with malnutrition.

GROSS: So Eleanor Roosevelt brought home economics into the White House. What does that mean?

ZIEGELMAN: Yeah. Eleanor was a big proponent of home economics, which might seem strange to us because wasn't she a feminist? Well, at the time, being a home economist and a feminist was in no way incompatible. Eleanor saw home economists as people who were going to liberate women from what she considered the drudgery of everyday housework by showing them the science behind what they do. Home economists gave housework a kind of intellectual vigor. They helped - women performed more efficiently, which in turn made families happier and healthier. And the end result of all of this health and happiness is that the nation itself would become stronger. So both as a feminist and a patriot, Eleanor believed in the virtues of home economics. She had been a longtime supporter of home economics through her home economics friends at Cornell University. During the Great Depression, she took recipes which had been prepared by those Cornell home economists and included them in her book called "It's Up To The Women," a book about how the country was going to survive the Depression and how it was women that was going to pull the country through it. She also brought these home economics foods into the White House dining room. So she became a kind of culinary examplar to the rest of the country, showing people what they, too, could do with their pennies and their nickels, how well they could feed their families.

GROSS: My guests are Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, authors of the new book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." After we take a short break, we'll talk about what food scientists were recommending in the 1930s and how that led to new foods like Milkorno, which you've probably never heard of. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman, authors of the new book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." It was a time when home economists were called on to advise Americans on how to cook meals that were cheap but nutritious.

So home economics was drawing on the latest science of nutrition. What was the science of nutrition at that time saying? We talked a little bit about the importance of milk, but what else?

COE: Well, the science of nutrition was not quite in its infancy during the Great Depression, but it was certainly in its youth. People had really been working out the - beginning to work out the content of calories and other nutrients in foods in the late 19th century. But vitamins weren't really discovered until the era beginning - during World War I. And so vitamins were very, very new.

And vitamins were, like, the new wonder foods which everybody was very excited about. But it was also, for the American public, they were also very mysterious. People weren't sure where to find the vitamins and what vitamins look like and what vitamins' role was in people's daily diets. But during the Depression, people were particularly concerned about vitamins and children, like whether their children were getting enough vitamins. And if they weren't getting enough vitamins, then they would not thrive. They would not grow into, like, normal, healthy adults.

And people were very, very worried about this. And one of the few places that they could turn to for reliable advice was the Bureau of Home Economics. And they deluged the bureau and some of the bureau's great - sort of the figurehead of the bureau was this imaginary woman, kind of like Betty Crocker, called Aunt Sammy. And they would send letters to Aunt Sammy asking, like, what are these vitamins, and what should my children be eating?

GROSS: So is this the era that some foods start being fortified with vitamins?

ZIEGELMAN: Yes, it is. And it all starts with a food called Milkorno. Milkorno - it's an invention of home economists. It came early in the Depression in 1933. And it was a kind of scientifically engineered compound that brought together powdered skim milk and ground corn and - which had no flavor of its own, but which you could add to all kinds of other foods to boost or fortify their nutritional content. So you could stir them into soups or into bread batters and cookie doughs. You could eat them straight off as a cereal. But you could also do a series of fairly bizarre culinary projects with them as suggested by home economists. One of them was to use Milkorno as a substitute for noodles in Chinese chop suey, which is really one of the strangest recipes that we came across in all of our research.

GROSS: Oh, tell us the recipe.

ZIEGELMAN: OK. Chop suey with Milkorno - 2 pounds lean pork - cut in cubes, two cups celery - sliced, two cups sliced onions, salt and pepper to taste, three or four cups cooked Milkorno. Sautee pork, add the seasonings and a half cup water and simmer until tender. About a half hour before meat is tender, add the celery and onions. If desired, the gravy may be thickened by adding two tablespoons of flour to each cup of liquid. Serve mixture poured over hot cooked Milkorno and serve.

COE: And, you know, I wrote a book about the history of the American experience of Chinese food. And I saw a lot of recipes for chop suey and chow mein, but this is really taking it about as far away from the original Chinese source...

GROSS: (Laughter).

COE: ...As you possibly can imagine. No - I mean, somebody from China or someone, you know, a Chinese American in Chinatown would just look at this and, I mean, it's so inedible in so many ways to somebody who knows Chinese food, it's amazing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

COE: But, I mean, they were creative during that time. The home economists - they liked to play. And they were always sort of pushing the limit.

ZIEGELMAN: I think I...

GROSS: I have to say, the idea of a milk product on a pork chop suey just sounds...

ZIEGELMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. True.

GROSS: ...A little bizarre to me. It's certainly not a part of Chinese cuisine. And it's certainly - I mean, none of this is either kosher or halal, that's for certain.

ZIEGELMAN: Well, you know, the economists really didn't give a fig about food culture. Culture just didn't mean dingy to them. It was really - it was about the science. And if you could put these ingredients together in a scientifically valid way, then you could break all the rules of tradition you wanted.

GROSS: Is there a point in culinary history as you've studied it where you see the Depression era foods ending and a new approach to eating starting?

COE: Well, I mean, one thing - you know, there's now, in culinary history, there are not any, or very few, clear turning points where you can say, aha. That was where things changed. One of the things that was going on during the Great Depression was the beginning of this sort of modern food technology that rules, you know, the way Americans eat today. That is there are a lot of canned foods were being - coming onto the market at the time. And also, refrigerators were really becoming very, very popular during the Great Depression, both in cities and in rural parts of the country.

Thanks to electrification, the Rural Electrification Administration, people could buy appliances. You know, farmers could buy appliances. And that meant frozen foods were becoming big. And, you know, at that time, few people could afford to buy them during the early years of the Great Depression. But, you know, gradually, these things picked up. And so this was, like, the sort of beginning of the era when people were starting to think about supermarkets with rows and rows of freezer cases and rows and rows of canned foods.

And also at the same time, the government was paving lots and lots of more roads. So it was much easier for farmers to bring food to markets - not just nearby markets, but markets in another state. And so you had these, like, national food distribution networks being set up. So it was much easier to get out-of-season produce. And that's the world in which we live in today. And that was certainly beginning during the Great Depression.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about food during the Depression. My guests are Jane Zielgelman and Andrew Coe, author of the new book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." We're going to take a short break here. And then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about food during the Great Depression. And my guests are Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, authors of the new book "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression."

The - you know, an interesting thing here is as Americans are starving during the Depression and eating, you know, like, prune salads and, you know, liver casseroles and things because it's cheap and nutritious, at the same time, the immigrant food that a lot of Americans are rejecting, a lot of that food is kind of, like, cheap, nutritious food and tasty and crunchy.

ZIEGELMAN: No, it's absolutely true. It's one of the - sort of the travesties of the period is that all of those home economists did not look to America's immigrant communities for inspiration. If they had, they would have found just, you know, a gold mine of highly nutritious, highly economic foods that also taste fantastic. But for, you know, a whole variety of reasons, cultural and culinary, they never took that opportunity. And it was one of the great losses of the period.

GROSS: What do you think people could have been eating during the Depression if they had an open mind about immigrant foods of the era?

COE: The food that Italian immigrants ate was certainly cheap and delicious and highly nutritious. I mean, I just think of the Italian immigrant women in New York City and wherever else they lived. You know, during - during the early spring, the dandelion greens would start coming up in the parks and the vacant lots. And they would go out and collect the dandelion greens, take them home and saute them in a little olive oil. And there you have, like, you know - you want vitamins, that's a great source of vitamins.

And they loved fresh food. And they loved salads. And they didn't eat much meat because meat was expensive. But they had great pasta dishes, which were very good, you know, filled with flavor and filled with nutrients. And it's tragic that we didn't look to their - you know, to their example for foods to eat during the Great Depression. But that wasn't science. And also that was un-American. And they were very interested in making the foods American.

GROSS: Freshness was not necessarily a virtue in the 1930s. This sort of infatuation that we have with food that's fresh, you know, just off the farm and crisp and sweet, that didn't really hold much water for Depression-era cooks who were more entranced with modern frozen foods. That was the miracle food. And canned foods came in every variety and - which, according to the advertisers, were made from better ingredients that were actually fresher than the fresh food you bought at the grocery store.

So things were a little bit turned on their heads. And there were people during the Depression who were beginning to recognize that. And you can see, toward the end of the 1930s, the beginnings of we might - of what we might call the kind of fresh, local and regional food movement.

COE: And one of the things about the people doing - who were overseeing food relief and the home economists - one of their beliefs was that the blandness wasn't bad because nobody ever was killed by monotony. They were killed by not having enough nutrients. And if it didn't taste good, well, maybe that - you know, maybe the problem was is that - they didn't want people to be too excited by the budget foods because they wanted to force people to get jobs and, you know, earn enough money to buy spices and seasonings. So...

GROSS: Seriously, was that...

COE: ...They weren't...

GROSS: ...A reason why the food was bland - to discourage people from relying on this food?

COE: Yes.

ZIEGELMAN: Yes.

COE: They deliberately...

GROSS: That's very interesting.

COE: They deliberately didn't add such things - when they were handing out relief boxes, they deliberately didn't add such things as mustard and vinegar with the relief boxes because they didn't want people to become too happy with receiving food relief.

GROSS: And I imagine they were not too happy.

ZIEGELMAN: No, they were not.

GROSS: Since you've both written books about immigrant food in America, I'm interested in what your food family trees are like.

ZIEGELMAN: Well, my family tree - it's a little bit complicated. My background is Jewish. One side of the family came over from Poland. So my father was born in Poland. I'm a first-generation American on my father's side. On the other side, I'm a second-generation Russian-Jew. So there's a lot of Eastern Europe in there.

However, the two grandmothers - my two grandmothers could not have been more different in the way they cooked. My paternal grandma was what we call a balabusta. She really knew her way around the kitchen. She never used a recipe. She cooked with amazing precision and finesse. And she cooked all of the fantastic Jewish classics - the stuffed breast of veal and the chicken soups and the barley soups and the roast chickens and the kugels, etc., etc. My other grandma - my maternal grandmother was a bit of a rebel. She was a schoolteacher. She wasn't particularly interested in domesticity. And one of the foods that I remember her serving to us was mashed potatoes with bologna.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ZIEGELMAN: So...

(LAUGHTER)

COE: That's a Depression-era food right there.

ZIEGELMAN: Which - yeah. Not only that, but it's a depressing food. And so I had these two very different role models - one very sort of quirky and offbeat and the other a real sort of traditionally accomplished cook. But both of them were really influential to me, strangely. And those - I remember that - those mashed potatoes with bologna as clearly as the fantastic rugelach prepared by the other grandma.

GROSS: So how do the mashed-potatoes-and-bologna grandmother influence your sense of food?

ZIEGELMAN: I think what I got from her is a kind of humor about food, a kind of lightness and a let's not go crazy here - let's not take this too seriously. The other part of it, of course, is that she was a woman who fed her children through the Depression. And bologna and mashed potatoes was a food that that family could've afforded. So there was some - that was a food of necessity. And I still have a lot of respect for women who can put together a dinner using scripts and scraps of this and that. And no - no dinner was more representative of that than this shredded bologna and mashed potatoes.

GROSS: Andrew, what about your family culinary history?

COE: Well, I have a - I guess, a complicated family culinary history. My father grew up in a northeastern WASP family. So he was raised on WASP food and a lot of school food, which was very, very much like the food served in the school lunch movement. But he rebelled against that. And when he was working for the government in Taiwan during the 1950s, he discovered Chinese food - not Chinese food like chop suey food, but like the great - a lot of the great Chinese chefs, some had fled the mainland after the revolution and were working in Taipei. And he discovered, like, the, you know, great Sichuan food and Hunan food and things like that. And, for him, this became like a kind of culinary holy grail.

And he became an anthropologist and married my mother, who was also an anthropologist. And she was the daughter of Russian immigrants, so her food was, you know, originally Russian food, borscht and things like that. But also, as an anthropologist, she became very, very interested in, you know, foods of other cultures and actually became a very noted culinary historian herself.

So I'm following in the family tradition. And so we were just - we ate a lot of foods when I was growing up from all over the world. And there was a lot of a sort of experimentation in food. And, you know, everything from - you know, she would, you know, try everything from the stuff that was - recipes that were in The New York Times to, you know, odd dishes, which she discovered on her many travels around the world. So it was a very eclectic and interesting culinary background.

GROSS: Do you have children?

ZIEGELMAN: Yes.

COE: Yes.

GROSS: Did you introduce them to adventurous foods at a young age?

ZIEGELMAN: Yes, very young. And both of our kids are fantastic eaters. They will eat absolutely everything, including sauteed kidney with pickled cucumber.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ZIEGELMAN: I mean, they really go way, way out on a limb. And we're incredibly proud of them (laughter)...

COE: But they won't...

ZIEGELMAN: for their open-mindedness...

COE: But they - we've made - you know, we've been making these dishes from the Great Depression, and they will not eat them.

ZIEGELMAN: That is true.

COE: It is like they - you know, they are, you know, part of a different culinary era. And Depression food in no way fits - like, the kind of food that they - you know, the things that they expect to be edible, this is not - for them, it's not food.

GROSS: Jane Ziegelman, Andrew Coe, thank you so much. Dinner at your house must be great.

ZIEGELMAN: (Laughter) Thank you, Terry.

COE: You're invited.

GROSS: (Laughter) Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe wrote the new book, "A Square Meal: A Culinary History Of The Great Depression." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a memoir that's a time capsule written by a woman born in 1866 who became one of the first white women to homestead in the Mississippi Delta. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.