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

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  1,364 ratings  ·  258 reviews

James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner

From the author of the acclaimed 97 Orchard and her husband, a culinary historian, an in-depth exploration of the greatest food crisis the nation has ever faced—the Great Depression—and how it transformed America’s culinary culture.

The decade-long Great Depression, a period of shifts in the country’s political and social landscape, forever changed the wayculture.


Kindle Edition, 341 pages
Published August 16th 2016 by Harper
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Suzanne It provides details about the federal government food programs and the resultant starvation at the local level. There is great detail about how women…moreIt provides details about the federal government food programs and the resultant starvation at the local level. There is great detail about how women were taught to stretch food and use new concepts like vitamin content to keep families healthy. Menus and recipes are included with weekly grocery bag contents. The book doesn't just cover rural poor areas but ably covers entire Nation (even including transient workers like hobos and their food resources.)(less)

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Biblio Files (takingadayoff)
You might imagine a culinary history of the Great Depression would be a catalog of cheap and skimpy meals, but having read previous works by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, I knew I'd be in for a social history with all the trimmings.

I was not disappointed. A Square Meal chronicles American diets in the early 20th century, tells the history of hoboes in America (and the important differences between hoboes and tramps and bums), touches on the popularization of canned and frozen foods,
Sep 13, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Disappointing, disorganized, and facile.

This is not a bad book, but it is not a good book. After being a little all over the place, it ends very abruptly. Does not sufficiently discuss the history of the food theories that lead to the Depression menus and comes off as very surface-level. Though the writing was engaging enough, I could not shake the feeling that this book was using the 1930s to comment on today more than anything else.
I felt this to be more of a social history of the Great Depression. The first three chapters seemed devoted to the Roaring 20s. Then it delved into politics of feeding (or not feeding) the unemployed, and events that affected agriculture, the beginning of home economists and promoting what a balanced diet was: watered-down and less is more, and the beginning of food manufacturing with corporations such as Post, Birds Eye, Jell-O (even Ralston & Purina).

I went into this seeking a culinary ta
Sarah Beth
I received an uncorrected proof copy of this book from the publisher.

"Food, like language, is always in motion, propelled by the same events that fill our history books" (189).

This work of non-fiction covers the culinary habits of a nation in the wake of World War I and through the Great Depression. Before the depression, America had an abundance of food, although rural and urban areas had very different habits concerning meals. Yet the economic downturn left many malnourished and starving. Fo
Aug 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cooking, historical
As disclosure, I am a social worker well versed in the canon of the New Deal and the growing idea of a social safety net. And today I still worry about food deserts and the ways in which food continues to marginalize whole sections of the U.S., through illness and lifelong disease. So, this book is right smack in my interest area and it is one perfect piece of work. I had thought I would read a book heavy with recipes and dollar-stretching ideas from magazines of the Depression era. Instead I wa ...more
May 29, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cooking
This meal was too dry for me.
Oct 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is much better than it has any right to be.

As a mix of recipes, songs, photos, oral history, scholarship, science, nutrition, and American history, it is totally fascinating.

After the Depression hits, we learn about programs that formed before, and as part of, the New Deal, like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the school lunch program, and the Food Stamp Plan, as well as the beginning of industry and consumer culture, as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Ap
The information in the book was really interesting, and contained much that I hadn't known both about American eating habits prior to and during the Depression, and about the evolution of government policy re: welfare and hunger relief. But the presentation left so much to be desired. There was little obvious connection between chapters, and I felt that the authors jumped between topics with little or no transition. It was hard to form a mental "big picture" given the way the book was written.
Aug 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Constantly infuriating and depressing, occasionally inspiring, and at all times informative, this is a very readable story of the agriculture, charities, government policies, and a bit on the economics of how people ate directly before, during, and after the Great Depression in the US.
Meg - A Bookish Affair
"A Square Meal" explores the food and the food culture during the Great Depression in the United States. The Great Depression fundamentally changed the way that Americans thought about and interacted with food. Food was, of course, rationed and individuals didn't have control over what kind of food they got many times. People were expected to do more with less and turn food that may not have been the best into meals for their family.

This book doesn't only explore what kind of food pe
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I got this book as part of Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. I had heard about this book on "Fresh Air" on NPR and was led to believe, by the interview that this was going to be an account of what I like to call "unfortunate food." - food that was nutritious, cheap and, ultimately unappetizing. It was that, but it was also much more.

What this book really is is a history of American cuisine from World War I through the Great Depression, as well as a look at the attitudes of Amer
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
You have the right to food money. So long as you don't mind investigation, humiliation, and rehabilitation. Who knew that The Clash song Know Your Rights may as well have been written about the Great Depression? What a mess.

If anyone needed a historical reason for not donating to the American Red Cross this week, this book will give you plenty. And hopefully make you re-think everything you thought you knew about the Roosevelt administration. But you probably already knew what a loser Hoover wa
Holly McIntyre
Mar 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Truthfully, I would give this 4.5 stars, but it is so hard to find interesting non-fiction these days that I slid it over to five. It was not entirely what I expected, but excellent in its own way nonetheless. It covers more than the Great Depression, reaching back to the food policies of the Great War to find the roots of America's love affair with a scientific approach to food and cooking. The focus is not so much "culinary" as "dietary" with much detailed attention to the dietary prescription ...more
May 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book bills itself as a "culinary history" but it is so much more: it often leans toward full social history, and it is endlessly fascinating. The authors always bring the focus back to food (and often, the lack thereof), but in the meantime, we get to see the politics of first Hoover's and then Roosevelt's efforts at relief, the rise of home economics and the scientific study of nutrition, and the technological advances taking place in the kitchen in the early 20th century. It is interestin ...more
Corban Ford
Oct 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An interesting culinary history of the great depression. I really enjoyed reading this. Jane Ziegelman examines how economic contraction and environmental disaster shaped the way that Americans ate during the depression, and she does it in a very thorough and engaging way. It is revealing, perceptive, and highly readable; a fresh slant to the old depression histories.
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very readable book which contained history prior to and through the depression in the US. This history included food, and it was fascinating to read how local, state, and federal governments dealt with food policy.
Leigh Anne
Jul 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You think you know, but you don't know.

It's really not until the scope of the era is right up in your face that you KNOW know. For those of you not fortunate enough to have had parents/grandparents around from the Greatest Generation/Silent Generation, Ziegelman's book is the remedy, providing a comprehensive guide that covers subjects ranging from "public policy to hobo lore" (ix).

In fact, the relationship between policy and actual life is scarier than you imagine. The H
Scottsdale Public Library
From the poor health of military conscripts in WWI, America embarked on a plan to (literally) beef up its citizens and assure that for whatever happened next, the nation would be healthy and ready. Despite all of that planning and wild eating, the Depression and resultant near starvation of mass numbers of Americans meant that with the start of the Selective Service for WWII, most men were underweight, undernourished and diseased. The story of those intervening years is fascinating and the polit ...more
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely not does not match the marketing or book flap. When I first heard about this book it sounded like a good read. How have our eating habits changed? How did we go from eating foods that were grown locally and seasonally to processed convenience items? Where and when did this change? Was there a catalyst? 
'A Square Meal' purported to look at the eating habits of people in the US and how they especially changed by the Great Depression. How the economics changed, how people ha
Beth Cato
The subject matter of this book is intriguing--the culinary history of the Great Depression--though in the end, it wasn't quite what I hoped it would be. The book starts out strong, detailing how World War I changed American's outlooks on food, and how that continued to evolve through the 1920s with major shifts to delis and cafeterias and corporation-driven food trends. Unfortunately, I found that where the food faltered was on the Depression itself. It became much more of a social history, emp ...more
Mar 04, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This was good but not great. Other reviewers have noted that the emphasis is on history, which is true, and I was looking forward to that. Still, even as a history it falls a little short; it lacks specificity, seems to cover the same ground multiple times (vitamins! protests! lack of government support!) and jumps around a bit in the timeline. I learned a few interesting tidbits (the Bonus March) but do not feel as though my overall understanding has changed.
Peter Goodman
Mar 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science

“A Square Meal: a culinary history of the Great Depression,” by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe (Harper, 2016). It is more than that. Because the authors need to create the context in which to understand the Depression, they have to describe the history of food in the US, at least from the Civil War era onward. Farm women’s main occupation was preparing the daily meals. Most of the US was rural and farmland, and the great majority of people ate what they produced. Farm meals tended to be huge, bec
Corinne Edwards
3.5 stars

When I think of the Depression, I often envision so-called "bread lines" and the hard times of The Grapes of Wrath, but the idea of this book intrigued me - how did this period of extreme want affect the food and eating culture of my country?

Turns out, it affected it a lot. This book is really two major things: the progression and preparation of the food itself, what it consisted of, how people made do with very limited ingredient choices, how was food preserved
Jul 26, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I bailed on this history halfway through, a real rarity for me, but since I wasn't getting through more than two or three pages a day I wasn't even really reading it anymore anyway. Not that it's bad, per se--Ziegelman and Coe are intelligent, able writers--it's just that the subject, The Culinary History of the Great Depression, as the subtitle states, turns out to be far less revelatory, or even interesting, than I imagined. Mostly though I lost patience with the endless use of primary sources ...more
Apr 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression is much more than its subtitle promises. Not only do Ziegelman and Coe write about what people were able to scrape together for themselves and their families between 1929 and 1939, they also thoroughly discuss how Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and their Congresses approached relief (welfare) during those hungry years. The end result is a much darker history of the Great Depression than I’ve ever read...
Hoo boy yes this is "an in-depth exploration of the greatest food crisis the nation has ever faced". Very very in depth. Exhaustively in depth. It seemed very well researched, but since I am not fascinated by the food of the Great Depression to the degree presented in this book, I found it somewhat dull. Also there seemed to be too much of a focus on New York.
Ron Seckinger
Interesting account of changing perceptions of dietary health and efforts (mostly by the federal government) to improve nutrition. The callousness and cruelty of officials at every level demonstrate a preference for malnutrition and even starvation over the risk of making poor citizens dependent on assistance.
Jun 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Fascinating! This book answered all sorts of questions I had never thought to ask. I learned about the typical farm diet of the 1920s and how that diet differed from the diet of the growing number of city-slickers. I learned what people ate (or didn't eat) during the Great Depression. I learned about the newly born food science and home economics industries. I learned about how much food people actually received from government relief programs (not much). I read a lot of fascinating and mostly d ...more
Carol Lynn
May 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Book focuses upon the steps Home Economists / Government took to encourage healthy but inexpensive meal planning, with a chapter on approaches to government assistance, such as free food and soup lines. The focus of the book wasn't what I expected, which did affect my enjoyment.
Cynthia Webb
Mar 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Food as history

This is a fairly well written and researched approach to Depression history. People carry their history in their food and as attitudes change so do recipes. This book addresses a particularly evolutionary time in American history through this lens. I'm looking forward to more along this line.
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Jane Ziegelman is the director of the Tenement Museum's culinary center and the founder and director of Kids Cook!, a multiethnic cooking program for children.

Her writing on food has appeared in numerous publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
“Unknown to them, spring fever was in fact a vitamin deficiency, mostly likely scurvy, brought on by the winter diet. IN” 1 likes
“In the great urban centers, the pulse of the factory served as a kind of metronome for the city at large. In the urban workplace, where wages were paid by the hour, efficiency was a measure of success. Factory hands demonstrated their worth by completing the maximum number of standardized motions in a given period. After the factory whistle blew, their time was their own. But even at leisure, city dwellers saw time as a resource, like coal or copper. The fear that time might run out, as every resource will, left them with the dread of time wasted. On the farm, meanwhile, time was not something you stockpiled like firewood. Farm chores took as long as they took—there was no rushing an ear of corn—and the workday stretched to accommodate the tasks at hand. Time was elastic. The minutes and hours that mattered so much to city folk were irrelevant to the drawn-out biological processes on which the farmer depended. In place of the clock, the farmer’s yardstick for measuring time was the progress of the seasons. As a result, his view of time was expansive, focused on the sweeping cycles of the natural world. For city people, time was fractured into finite segments like boxes on a conveyer belt. On the farm, time was continuous, like a string around a tree, one season flowing inevitably into the next. For” 0 likes
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