In that sense, it’s not hard to draw a parallel between government’s exhortations then and, First Lady Michelle Obama’s current initiatives to dot the national culinary landscape with a few more wholesome vistas. But while more recent efforts to change American dietary patterns have revolved around suggestions such as swapping potato chips with kale chips, the direness of the Depression reduced public campaigns about food to humbler aims—providing basic sustenance and battling vitamin deficiencies—which were austerely championed by Eleanor Roosevelt. “In home economics, Eleanor found a way of thinking about food that was consistent with her values,” write Ziegelman and Coe. “Built on self-denial, scientific cookery not only dismissed pleasure as nonessential but also treated it as an impediment to healthy eating.”
Accordingly, ethnic foods with their (supposedly) hunger-triggering spices were vilified and considered “stimulants” along the lines of caffeine and so, in their stead came prune puddings, canned-meat stews, and dairy-heavy vegetable casseroles featuring America’s first fortified foods. And, though diminished by decades of culinary evolution, there are still vestiges of this old way of eating at tables across America. “Some of the wacky creations—the Jell-O salads, the cans of celery soup mixed with tuna fish and mashed potatoes—that’s maybe not happening here [in New York], but I think that’s very much alive more toward the middle of the country,” Ziegelman explained. (Indeed, in this month’s Atlantic cover story, President Barack Obama tells Ta-Nehisi Coates about coming across the familiar sight of “the same Jell-O mold that my grandmother served” when he enters the homes of white farmers and trade unionists.)
Beyond the science-driven fare and nutritionism of the Depression diet, American foodways were also reshaped by government projects that slowly pushed the United States toward recovery. “Before the Depression, America was not very well connected by roads and rails,” Coe explains. The New Deal-mandated creation of infrastructure—which also included power lines and electricity—would pull rural farm areas into larger food systems and eventually help deliver refrigerators to the masses. While canning and pickling and seasonal, farm-to-table meals may have recently come crashing back into vogue in the United States, it was these labor-intensive methods from which many households were seeking reprieve. “Farmers could now sell their produce at the nearest regional center where it would be distributed all across the country and, at the same time, they could now get out-of-season foods, canned foods, frozen foods, or fresh oranges from Florida or California all around the year,” says Coe.
Though it may seem like boom times for haute eating, there are resemblances, both subtle and obvious, between modern-day America and its Depression-era analogue. As Ziegelman explains, parents are still trying to sneak vegetables into their children’s food while the reign of nutrition bars and protein shakes might appear to be the souped-up descendents of the technology-enabled, basic-by-design fare of the 1930s. More urgently, hunger has returned. “As of 2014, the most recent year on record, 14 percent of all American households are not food secure,” Ned Resnikoff noted in The Atlantic back in July‚ a three-point bump from pre-Great Recession levels. “That’s approximately 17.4 million homes across the United States, populated with more than 48 million hungry people.” The relative inexpensiveness of food in the United States, which has long softened the blow of stagnant wages, may fall out of reach once again. And given how proposed spending cuts could be meted out by President-elect Trump and his administration, those numbers of hungry Americans seem destined to go up.