When E.C. Harwood formed the American Institute for Economic Research 90 years ago, the New Deal was just beginning. The Great Depression, though, was over three years old, and it was a hangry, troublesome toddler.
For those with a job, or on a fixed income, the Depression was great, because prices sank a great deal. Unlike today, real wages, or in other words wages adjusted for the declining price level, remained high for many.
For the one-in-four to one-in-three workers without a job, though, the Depression meant lean times. Few resorted to eating insects, which were so thick at times that the Colorado national guard in 1937 used flamethrowers to kill them but, tellingly, not to roast them for dinner. And adult consumption of human breast milk was largely a fictional device used at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. There was, however, genuine dietary privation, especially after the federal government began deliberately destroying food in an effort to raise prices. (And you thought we have it bad!)
Everyone is familiar with the iconic images of those with no better alternative waiting in line for a bowl of thin soup and old bread. Many tend to think of such meals as coming from the state, but in fact much of it came from private charities, especially in places like New England with hoary and robust nonprofit networks. Indeed, most of the response to food shortages was intensely private. Families facing budget deficits temporized or, in the parlance of the day, “made do.” That meant paying bills late or not at all, patching worn clothes instead of buying new ones, and changing their diets.
Some of the dietary changes were unhealthy. Richard Willis, for example, tells of eating lard sandwiches while growing up on a farm in Depression-era Iowa. Other kids (like me, albeit 40 years later during another horrific government-caused economic snafu called the Great Inflation) scarfed down “cheese dreams,” cheap cheese sandwiches grilled to disguise the moldiness of the bread.
Many Depression-era Americans increased their consumption of wild edibles during periods of unemployment. In South Dakota, for example, pheasants grew plentiful in fallow fields, and were easily picked off from the porch or roadside. Connecticuters and upstate New Yorkers chowed down on squirrels, rabbits, and even, I kid you not, skunks. Fish were plentiful in many areas and even if from polluted waters were better than nothing. Wild berries, apples, and other delectables too small to bother gathering during the Roaring Twenties were well worth the trouble when there was nothing else to do but go hungry.
Depression-era Americans also started, or enlarged, home gardens and holdings of domesticated chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and waterfowl. Home “canning” products experienced a resurgence as people preserved their summer bounty and fall harvests for consumption over the winter.
A typical Depression-era breakfast consisted of a piece of seasonal fruit, milk and cereal, and eggs or toast with butter. The noon meal was usually a sandwich with salad or some soup. Dinner was meat and veggies, followed by dessert. What varied between households and over time was the quantity and quality of each of those courses, especially the dinner meat entree.
Many Depression-era recipes disseminated via newspaper, radio, or free (corporate-sponsored) pamphlets were implicitly designed to help food preparers to “stretch” limited supplies and to “spice up” a monotonous menu without breaking the bank, so to speak. The free pamphlets were especially useful because once the recipes in it were copied or memorized they helped to save on toilet paper costs too.
Eleanor, the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), urged women in her 1933 book, It’s Up to the Women, to engage in thrifty cooking and housekeeping. As usual, the government was behind the curve as The Joy of Cooking (1931) and other popular cookbooks had already entered the market, while radio shows like “The Mystery Chef” provided the latest and greatest cheap culinary ideas that trickled down from people with a working radio to those without. Overall, simple meals like spaghetti and (mystery) meatballs gained in popularity, at the expense of more costly or harder-to-find specialty and ethnic foods.
Many cheap foods still common among the poor today made their debut during the Depression: Wonder Bread (1930), Bisquick (1931), Miracle Whip (1933), and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup (1934). Ragu spaghetti sauce, Kraft mac-n-cheese, and Hormel Spam all appeared during the Roosevelt Recession in 1937. When King George VI visited America in 1939, the infamously stingy FDR served him another poor man’s specialty meat, the “hot dog,” which despite its name included actual canine only in some Asian and American Indian contexts. Spam and hot dogs at least tasted better than lard sammiches.
The Depression also changed the way that Americans shopped. It was during the Depression that the old-style store, where clerks dispensed goods to customers over the counter, began to lose significant market share to less expensive “warehouse food stores” where customers retrieved items themselves, the precursor to the modern grocery store. What the warehouse stores lost in pilferage and spillage they made up for with lower labor costs and higher sales of impulsively purchased junk food, many examples of which, including Twinkies (1930), Frito Corn Chips (1934), Ritz Crackers (1934), and Lay’s Potato Chips (1939), also date to the Depression.
Little wonder, then, that the Schechter brothers felt that they had to fight back when FDR’s Blue Eagle tried to prohibit them from allowing their customers to pick their own chickens for slaughter, as they traditionally had. In 1935, the Schechters won their famous Supreme Court battle, which gutted the Blue Eagle and the National Recovery Administration that hatched it. The poor chicken boys lost the war against the Depression, though, as consumers learned that it was cheaper and easier to buy already-processed chickens from one of the new supermarkets. Already suffering from the harms imposed by the New Deal, the Schechters saw their revenues plummet, forcing them to close their chicken business in 1936.
Moreover, chopping up chickens before retail sale led to big dietary changes in the prosperous postwar period, as Americans increasingly ate just the naked breasts, and by 1964 deep fried wings slathered in spicy and later sugary sauces, while eschewing the most nutritious part of the birds: their skins, gizzards, and livers.
It’s a stretch to blame today’s obesity crisis on America’s second Great Reset – the vast legal and socioeconomic changes ushered in by the Depression, New Deal, and World War II – but it certainly started Americans down the wrong dietary path, one leading to the infamous food pyramid and MyPlate, which pretty much just served the same junk food guidelines in a new way.