A Possible Origin Story

ASquareMealI’ve been taking a “staycation” this week, just hanging around the house, getting a few useful things done, and listening to my favorite NPR station. WBUR airs a lot of talk programming that I like to listen to while I do housework, and this week I’m hearing programs that are oddly relevant to me. Yesterday, it was an hour of “On Point” about the history of exhaustion. On Monday on “Fresh Air”, Terry Gross interviewed a couple who’ve written a book about food during the Great Depression.

As I listened to Gross’s guests describe the thrifty, filling, and bland cuisine promoted by the U.S. government during the Depression, I was struck by the similarity of what they were describing to the recipes I’ve been making during the course of the Project. At some point, the proverbial light bulb clicked on in my head, and I realized that The New Joys of Jell-O and its ilk are direct descendants of Depression-era cuisine.

I’ve made a number of wise-cracks about General Foods food scientists, possibly on drugs, trying to screw around with the average American housewife by coming up with bizarre recipes containing Jell-O. I feel a little bad about that now. I haven’t read A Square Meal… yet (just downloaded it from Amazon), but based on what I’ve heard so far, my theory is that even as late as the 1970s our cuisine was heavily informed by Depression-era notions about food.

To illustrate, my grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression, and having grown up poor in a large family, she would have been particularly receptive to a style of cooking that was inexpensive, filling, and held to be nutritious by modern food scientists. Naturally she would have passed that along to my mother, and my mother, who had a fairly large family of her own to feed during the economically troubled 1970s, would have seen no reason to deviate from the old cookbook. I mostly accepted that style of cooking until I started watching Julia Child, who offered a look at how cooking could be different, and when I went to university I had greater freedom and opportunity to explore other cuisines.

Researching this further, I found this Serious Eats article about the history of the Jell-O salad. My theory is pretty good, but fails to account for WWII, when the food science that had been touted as a solution to hunger during the Depression was repurposed to feed the troops. After the war, the food processing industry was disinclined to scale back to earlier peacetime levels, so it geared up to (create, and then) meet the needs of American housewives. That had a lot to do with perpetuating that style of cooking, but I suspect it was an easier sell to people who had grown accustomed to eating that sort of food during the Depression. Otherwise, you have to wonder whether the food processing industry would have dared to foist some of their weird, bland creations on the nation.

As it turns out, the blandness and the weirdness of the recipes developed during the Depression were both intentional. For one thing, it was believed that spicy foods were stimulants along the lines of caffeine, alcohol, and harder drugs. For another, from a policy standpoint, the home economists developing this way of cooking didn’t expect people to enjoy it; the idea was to make sure that while poor people should feel full and nourished, they should also want to go out and get jobs so that they could afford better food. Perhaps the least palatable rationale from our modern standpoint, Depression-era cuisine purposely eschewed immigrant cuisines because they had no basis in food science and were “un-American”.

Chinese man breaking apart chunks of frozen meat on a busy sidewalk while a decidedly Anglo older man looks on in disgust

Ancient Chinese food-handling techniques appall tourists in San Francisco, 1993

When I heard that, I was reminded of my parents’ general aversion to ethnic food. Not only was ethnic food not prepared in our home (unless it was, say, La Choy canned “Chinese” food, or Ortega prepackaged “Mexican”), but also, we never went out for it. When we went out to eat, it was to Mr. Steak or to Abdow’s Big Boy. In particular, we avoided Chinese restaurants, because my father claimed that one time, when doing a plumbing job at a Chinese restaurant, he’d seen workers chopping food on a piece of cardboard on the kitchen floor. (Not that my father wasn’t racist, but something I witnessed on my first trip to San Francisco in 1993 lends credence to his story.) My father also claimed that his stomach was too sensitive for spicy food (but somehow it didn’t have trouble with the scotch-rocks he drank every night after work).

Now I’m going to have to be mindful of this history as I proceed with the Project. The recipes may be weird and sometimes scary, and the photos may be rather grotesque and hilarious, but many of these recipes were originated by people who were trying to do their best, with the best information they had available to them, at a desperately difficult time. In the early days of food science, this kind of cooking was considered “high tech”. Take a moment to think about how attached we, in this truly modern era, have become to our own tech…

 

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