The Great Depression still haunts the American diet

Great Depression food line
CC BY 2.0 buckle1535

Think Grandma's cooking is old-fashioned? You might be copying more of her methods than you realize.

The scarcity of the Great Depression seems a world apart from the abundance of food in North America today. Supermarkets, restaurants, refrigerators, and, sadly, trash cans overflow with food so cheap it’s practically disposable at the slightest sign of going bad. While the distribution system is far from perfect and many U.S. families do live with food insecurity, for the most part there is surplus unlike any other time in history.

So why mention the Great Depression at all? Because the effects of that decade continue to reverberate throughout the nation. An article in The Atlantic, titled “How the Great Depression still shapes the way American eat,” makes the intriguing argument that the experience of the 1930s shifted the American consciousness from its old 19th-century food culture to a radically new way of thinking about diet – and that the ‘new’ way of thinking hasn’t changed much since.

Jane Ziegelman, co-author of One Square Meal (with Andrew Coe), explains that the Great Depression was the first time that the government took an active role in telling the population what to eat, why it was important, and how to prepare it. She is quoted in the article:

“It’s the beginning of a sort of nutrition consciousness. It’s when we begin to think about food groups in terms of food groups and vitamins and minerals and evaluating food on that basis. It’s the beginning of when we look at the sides of our cereal boxes and see how many grams of sugar and how much fiber and make our decisions based on those calculations.”

This mentality has stuck with us. We might make fun of the ‘fortified foods’ that dominated the American diet at the time (prune pudding! canned lima beans! potted meat!), but the fact is that they’ve simply been repackaged in modern forms:

“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 descendants of the technology-enabled, basic-by-design fare of the 1930s.”

In some parts of the country (and in Canada, too, where I live), a surprising number of people continue to cook the same way as their thrifty grandparents once did, preparing molded Jell-O salad, canned cream soup casseroles, potato-marshmallow salads. You might think those concoctions had gone the way of the dodo bird, but head to any rural, small-town church potluck dinner and you’ll be in for a culinary adventure.

One could argue, too, that the Depression-era techniques for preserving food through home canning and pickling, which were once a dreaded necessity, are becoming mainstream again, not just because of DIY-loving hipsters, but because people are genuinely concerned, even fearful, for the safety and security of their food. With endless contamination scares and recalls, preserving one’s own food in season is one way to ensure you’ll have something on the shelf.

The Great Depression was a time of great hardship for many, but it has relevant lessons for us today. Most importantly, its legacy can teach us the value of food – how precious abundance is and how we must make the best of what we have at all times, while using it wisely.

The Great Depression still haunts the American diet
Think Grandma's cooking is old-fashioned? You might be copying more of her methods than you realize.

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