"They didn't want people to become too happy with receiving food relief"
August 27, 2016 11:07 AM   Subscribe

"Whatever [the ingredients] taste like together is not particularly relevant." Terry Gross interviews married culinary historians Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe on the culinary history of the Great Depression and their new book 'A Square Meal' (37:00 audio, transcribed sections)
posted by The Whelk (50 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
This book and this story reminds me of an old Disney's Recess episode where the kids on the playground discover an old book that had suggestions for games to play during the 'Great Depression' and they had to use a lot of garbage pail lids and old cans in order to entertain themselves.

At first the kids are excited to try something new and different and to sort of relive what the previous generations grew up with, but they quickly realize that these were less than ideal times and it was simply a case of making do under the extreme circumstances of that era. They realize how lucky they truly are to live in the generation they live in.
posted by Fizz at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


Now when people eat spaghetti, people know that as in Italy, it has to be al dente, like cooked, let's say, nine minutes or something like that, so it's still a little bit crunchy.

Really?
posted by bongo_x at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2016


In my experience, kids, especially young kids, prefer bland foods. They don't like onions or pepper. These menus don't sound that bad to me, and I think they sound more healthy than the french fries and chicken fingers you see served in schools today.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:51 AM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


In my experience, kids, especially young kids, prefer bland foods.

I don't know what you mean by young, but when it comes to kids 6 and older I can assure you that this is not true globally. Indian kids particularly like sweet-sour flavors (think tamarind, raw mango, etc) and savory streetside food. Chaat vendors would go broke without kids.

PS: I realize that this has nothing to do with the US; I just want to point out that the blandness preference of American children has to do with American culture, not biological age.
posted by splitpeasoup at 12:07 PM on August 27, 2016 [52 favorites]


The deliberate blandness of the food reminded me of the home inspections Ford factory workers endured to make sure they where becoming 'real Americans ' garlic in the house got the same black mark as having alcohol or sending money back home .
posted by The Whelk at 12:19 PM on August 27, 2016 [33 favorites]


I am talking mostly about my American nieces and nephews. I have 19 of them. There have been a few that were very adventuresome with spicy or sour foods.
posted by Bee'sWing at 12:22 PM on August 27, 2016


Jane Zeigelman's 97 Orchard, a food history of the families that lived in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, is also a great read.

The "white sauce" she mentions was also quite a phenomenon. Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad talks a lot about it. It was literally a way of cloaking foods in a bland whiteness associated with propriety. This review sort of summarizes it.

Hunger wasn't the only prompt for the school lunch program. It also gave the government a way to purchase food from farmers failing due to market price drops and redistribute it as aid.

Looking forward to reading this!
posted by Miko at 1:03 PM on August 27, 2016 [14 favorites]


Yeah that's what makes restricting food stamps so insane, it's literally a produce subsidiary for farmers.
posted by The Whelk at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


In my experience, kids, especially young kids, prefer bland foods.

Counterpoint.
posted by Daily Alice at 1:09 PM on August 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


My kids do not prefer bland foods, and are often perplexed by the french fries and chicken nuggets at everyone else's houses. Also, "al dente" means that pasta is cooked properly and feels good to the bite but it most certainly does not mean CRUNCHY! Good heavens, it's as if the person claiming so doesn't understand that good pasta was never crunchy to begin with (though when cooking dried pasta, it's still not crunchy when you eat it).
posted by trackofalljades at 1:28 PM on August 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


But it's still something that one would sauce with ketchup, right?
posted by indubitable at 1:34 PM on August 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Hey now, New York Times review, I've made eggs ala goldenrod! Once. It was fine, I guess.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:25 PM on August 27, 2016


I wouldn't say that kids necessarily prefer bland foods, so much as it's possible that kids have more sensitive taste buds. I can remember sauces and spices tasting really, really strong to me when I was a kid - to the point that I shunned dressing on salad, because vegetables had taste, and I didn't want those tastes covered up with what to me tasted like over-seasoned glop. By the same token, my tongue was sensitive enough to detect the distinct taste of different vegetables.

The preference for "blandness" may be more a case of young tongues just unaccompanied to the strength of a given spice.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:27 PM on August 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Jane Zeigelman's 97 Orchard, a food history of the families that lived in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, is also a great read.

The museum also has a food tour that is quite enjoyable.

I remember visiting a Mormon fort out west, and the tour guide discussed how cheese was made there, to be shipped out to settlements farther west. Someone asked how the cheese tasted, and the guide said, "They didn't really care how it tasted. It was simply a way to store milk for longer than they could otherwise do."
posted by me & my monkey at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


it's possible that kids have more sensitive taste buds

They do. This topic was covered pretty extensively, with some attention to the cross-cultural implications, on the podcast Gastropod: First Foods: Learning to Eat.
posted by Miko at 3:26 PM on August 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


In my experience, kids, especially young kids, prefer bland foods. They don't like onions or pepper. These menus don't sound that bad to me, and I think they sound more healthy than the french fries and chicken fingers you see served in schools today.

Of course, this is the post that derails the discussion on MetaFilter. "I don't know what you mean by most... My kids love their very spicy plate of beans, so it can't be true!"
posted by Guy Smiley at 4:58 PM on August 27, 2016 [13 favorites]


I know, I hope to re-rail it with the link above, but that might've been naive. It would be awesome to talk about food in the Depression, like in the FPP.
posted by Miko at 5:17 PM on August 27, 2016


I grew up eating mostly bland food, with the occasional mild curry. (My mother, whom I love dearly, produced quintessentially mid-20th century overcooked English food, but I feel far too guilty even admitting that to go into details. Sorry, Mum. To make it worse, we grew a lot of it ourselves. with a good quarter acre of the garden devoted to beans, lettuce, cabbage, radish, tomatoes, potatoes, asparagus, etc. and an orchard with four different types of apples, two of pears, gooseberries, red and blackcurrants, blackberries, quince, plus wild strawberries and garlic in the woods down by the stream, a huge bay tree... until I typed that list, I never realised what I grew up taking for granted. Today, I have a window box with mint and basil.)

I can remember one incident on a family vacation to Spain, when I was seven, where my parents commented on another diner in the hotel restaurant throwing a lot of Tabasco into her soup - "Goodness, does she think that's tomato sauce?". They couldn't understand how anyone might actually like something that hot.

When I left home, I discovered that I loved feisty food. It was like finding a wall switch that turned on the lights to a huge hall of wonders. I have no doubt that I would have been that way from birth, had I had the chance.

My son, however, is the polar opposite. From birth, he has hated stuff that tastes of anything. His mother doesn't like exploring the deep jungle of Planet Scoville as I do, but she's on the spectrum. Devonian Jr is not. despite sharing a large number of other trains from the two of us.

Nature? Nurture? Neither?

(miss that orchard, though)
posted by Devonian at 5:59 PM on August 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


Hunh. One of the recipes my dad learned from his father was "SOS" -- boiled potatoes, ground beef, white sauce like that described in the FPP, punched up with some black pepper, all over a slice of toasted bread. It's gloppy and mushy and sorta bland, although I always looked forward to SOS night. Just add more pepper! Grandpa Quester learned that recipe when he was in the Marines before (and during) WWII, and it seems likely the dish was informed by the science of the time, which is kinda cool.
posted by notyou at 6:14 PM on August 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


Didn't SOS stand for "Shit on a Shingle"? My dad used to talk about that as one of the things they'd eat when he was in the air force.
posted by gamera at 6:39 PM on August 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I left that detail out 'cause I thought it might dissuade anybody thinking of giving the recipe a go.
posted by notyou at 6:47 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


My grandmother's alphabet tomato soup was a childhood favorite of mine: nothing but a can of Campbell's, a bullion cube, and alphabet-shaped pasta, with leftovers stored in a glass mayonnaise jar with a square of wax paper under the screw-on lid. My version? Soup base I've canned from homegrown tomatoes, stock made from my chickens, and those same old tiny letters. When I was canning tomato sauce the other night, I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of my grandmother's soup, and thought how proud she'd be, seeing me laying in my supply of processed tomatoes. Then I caught myself and realized she'd think I was crazy for not going down to Big Bunny and stocking up on real soup.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:08 PM on August 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


It's gloppy and mushy and sorta bland, although I always looked forward to SOS night.

God, that was one of our favorites as kids. The black pepper is key to the whole thing though.
posted by bongo_x at 7:18 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


BTW, the official name for SOS is "Creamed Beef On Toast".
posted by bongo_x at 10:12 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


My family's chipped beef recipe was creamed with frozen mixed vegetables over rice, I loved it. I think it was the saltiness. My parents don't keep salt in the house, so the only salt I got growing up was in processed stuff (which we oddly ate a ton of). Chipped beef was nice and tasty, but steaks, unsalted and cooked until well done, were terrible.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:13 AM on August 28, 2016


Both sets of my grandparents lived through the Depression, and it marked them for life. Reading these kinds of articles, I can recall it in some of the foods they preferred and even more in my parents' descriptions of how they were fed as children. I grew up benefiting from the 1970s reaction against that kind of cooking, but there were even so some weekly dishes that were straight out of the Depression era.

My only personal encounter with white sauce was in England, and I remember it as being one of the most aggressively bland things I have ever eaten. The Depression in the US only lasted for a few years, but post-war rationing in England lasted for much longer, and must have had a huge impact on cooking and food culture for that generation.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:19 AM on August 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


A lot of weird recipes in church cookbooks make more sense in light of this article.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:34 AM on August 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


The Depression in the US only lasted for a few years, but post-war rationing in England lasted for much longer, and must have had a huge impact on cooking and food culture for that generation.

I completely concur. The emphasis on frugality above all was the dominant feature in our family's cooking throughout the 70s - you should have heard my grandmother (who lived with us) go on for hours about finding a slightly cheaper source of bacon.

We didn't have any money, which was a factor, and the 70s were hard in the UK, but not enough to justify the extreme conservatism.
posted by Devonian at 5:34 AM on August 28, 2016


Somewhat relevant: There's an interesting YT channel called Great Depression Cooking.
posted by xedrik at 9:41 AM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's interesting! We had a 1940s night at one of my community organizations, and one of the saints there putting it on got an idea to make authentic food from a "ration recipe book" and we were all excited. But it was just crap. Horrible, bland, weird crap, heavy on the toast and just basically inedible. I felt so bad, because she clearly worked so hard, but when you look at the recipes, you're like "how could that ever have been good?"

(Except for drinks. 1940s drinks were awesome.)
posted by corb at 9:43 AM on August 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


In my experience, some people are just not that much into food, and while I can totally recognize how old-time home-economists were only interested in nourishment and budget, it seems the authors and the host's foodie-perspective blinds them to some aspects of the bland foods that might have appealed to good cooks and gourmets at the time.

First of all, that generation often had bad teeth. My maternal gran who was an amazing cook, a connoisseur of products of all sorts and very interested in international food trends, had terrible teeth, and she was always scared of "crunchy". Apart from lettuce, peeled cucumbers and soft tomatoes, she did not eat raw veg ever and she frequently overcooked vegetables including potatoes (my grandfather first ate broccoli when I came of cooking age because before that he had only had them cooked into stinky mush). She loved stuff immersed in white sauce, and all the things one can do with a velouté.
Secondly, she actually enjoyed spices and garlic, but my grandfather was very scared of smelling strongly of anything at work, so we only had spicy-garlicky food when he was on holiday. Never the less, all her food apart from broccoli was delicious, with profound umami tastes, excellent salt balance, and very elegant uses of (overcooked) vegetables, herbs, spices and various stocks. She was a master of "bland", and taught me the value of minimalism in taste.

One of my friends' Italian great-aunt was exactly the same, so it is not necessarily a north-south thing. Contrariwise, when you look at old recipes, there are lots of examples of delicious "bland", like spinach cooked for ages with a ton of butter, or lettuce and green peas also cooked in butter. Or pasta e fagioli, or the real Bolognese sauce with no spices except a bit of white pepper, and almost no tomato. Or those fish balls in white sauce, quenelles, which I miss because pike is hard to get here. A traditional couscous dinner, with a stew with overcooked vegs and maybe some meat, is certainly not spicy or pricy.

In the interview, I really don't get what is wrong with the pea soup without milk? There are lots of nice pea soups without milk. I do get that from our point of view, pea soup and spaghetti are two primi in a row and that is strange, but I've been at a gourmet restaurant where we had three primi in a row…

Also, I get that the actual recipes for these dishes are disgusting, and that is in part because of the home economy profession's disregard for food culture.

What I am getting at is that there was a cultural context of foods that were subtle rather than bland, and that those 30's food politicians were searching for easy/simple versions of those foods. Jellies can be amazing, both the sweet and the savory. White sauce is an essential part of lasagna.
posted by mumimor at 10:11 AM on August 28, 2016 [12 favorites]


From Mary Allen Hulbert's Treasures of a Hundred Cooks (1927; my other grandmother's copy):

"One of the best known and useful sauces--and the most abused--is the plain white sauce, too often, alas!, more nearly brother than cousin to wall-paper paste.

"WHITE SAUCE

1 rounded tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup rich milk or thin cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper

"Put into a saucepan 1 tablespoon of butter. When it bubbles, draw off the fire, and add 1 tablespoon of flour. Then cook, stirring constantly, but do not let it color. Add very slowly 1 cup of cream or rich hot milk. Stir until perfectly smooth and thickened. Season with salt and pepper."
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:06 AM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


it seems the authors and the host's foodie-perspective blinds them to some aspects of the bland foods that might have appealed to good cooks and gourmets at the time.

Thanks, I had a similar reaction, but couldn't quite sort it out.

I heard this on the radio and the main takeaway I got from them was "they were doing it wrong", and it seemed an amazingly privileged perspective. "Why didn't they just eat fresh local ethnic food?" While I know they didn't quite mean it like that, much of it sounded like "why didn't they just go to Whole Foods?" I thought the ethnic food angle was kind of weird and bordering on exoticism.

I didn't think the story was terrible, but the foodie, and seemingly narrow perspective in general, plus the fact that so much of it sounded like they had a story and the facts were going to fit if they had to break them made it not as interesting as it could have been.
posted by bongo_x at 12:20 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


I was just talking about this thread with my wife, whose parents came of age in depression-era rural Idaho. Her mom had a whole array of white sauce with "whatever is left over" dishes that she would make when time was tight. They were quick and easy to make, filling, and she remembers them as being pretty tasty.
posted by gamera at 2:11 PM on August 28, 2016


This is reminding me of my mom's cooking when I was growing up. Unseasoned ground beef served over boiled potatoes was a specialty. Another was wallpaper-paste white sauce served over boiled cod. I was so happy when I moved away and had my own kitchen.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:32 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


This white sauce seems very much like the peppered gravy served with chicken fried steak. Is it the same thing?
posted by LizBoBiz at 7:14 PM on August 28, 2016


That white sauce sounds like a start on making a chicken pot pie.

I lived in England in a university dorm in 1992, and we got heavy, sweet sauce poured over darn near anything as dessert several nights per week. To an American, it was like Jell-O vanilla pudding, but many of the U.K. students were quite happy to have it.

I would easily believe that this is a hold-over from the decades of post-war rationing, which must have seemed ENDLESS and which doubtless blunted the palates of a full generation of cooks and eaters.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:15 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Probably. This white sauce as described is the Béchamel, one of the four "Mother Sauces" that serves in the foundation of classic French cooking. It's a base for many other kinds of sauce (you can add cheese, or mustard, or diced sweated onions, etc. and get different sauces). It's supposed to be subtle/bland because it's either supposed to be the background to a protein or vegetable or serve as a base for more forward flavors.
posted by rtha at 8:16 PM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


This thread made me realize that my maternal grandparents' bad teeth might be why my grandma cooked (fresh from the garden only ten steps from the stove) vegetables to absolute mush. My mom and aunts are still learning how to make certain veggies palatable; I was largely nannied by public television cooking shows so I learned sooner how to roast and saute instead of boil (plus my paternal grandmother was a French immigrant so I ate lots of "exotic" food at her table that helped shape my preferences). It's probably why my husbands' parents are so vegetable-averse too; I know my mother-in-law's mother had terrible teeth and maybe my father-in-law's parents did too.

That said, a favorite dish in season from my grandma was new potatoes and fresh garden peas mixed with white sauce, and when you season it properly it is lovely and I strongly recommend trying it. It works with a waxy potato and frozen peas when you can't get the real spring deal.
posted by padraigin at 8:28 PM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]


mumimor, thanks. That reminds me of something we had at a Japanese restaurant 25 years ago. I never figured out if someone ordered it, or if it was part of the meal. It was sort of a soft custardy congealed white stuff, in a white cylindrical cup with a lid (like a Chinese teacup with a lid). It was... barely warm and absolutely bland, and exactly in the middle there was a small ball of something slightly more coherent, or maybe waxy. A seed of some kind? Something scraped off the bottom of a deep-fryer? Beeswax? (Beeswax has more flavour...) A chickpea? I'm still fascinated by the minimalist quality of it; the idea that we've eaten a tiny enigma.
posted by sneebler at 7:06 AM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sneebler, was it chawanmushi maybe?
posted by milk white peacock at 8:42 AM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Depression Cooking with Clara was discussed here on MetaFilter, and it's a nice thread with some personal memories.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's become clear from this thread how terrible a cook I must actually be, because I just considered that peppered white sauce (bechamel) "vegetarian gravy" and we have it sometimes with fake sausages and mashed potatoes and whatever vegetable's around. I did indeed adapt it from SOS (just leaving out the dried beef), which I learned from my Air Force dad and then cooked for my eighth-grade class on Demonstration Day. I thought I was way cooler than that kid who taught us how to change a tire, because changing a tire is super easy, ami8thgraderite?

Anyway, I guess I gotta learn some new things, then. Vegetarian cooking is so often so boring.
posted by lauranesson at 6:41 AM on August 30, 2016


There's not a thing wrong with bechamel, especially a nice buttery one with a little garlic and nutmeg or a lot of black pepper. It's just that they used to put it on absolutely everything.
posted by Miko at 7:25 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


We always called it white gravy and it's a gift from the Gods. How else would you eat biscuits and gravy?

We never ate it as white as the pictures I see. I'm not certain of the specifics, but I think you cook the flour in the grease from the meat for a few minutes until it starts to brown, then make the rest of the gravy in the pan. Add a lot of black pepper and hot sauce. It's not that bland.
posted by bongo_x at 10:01 AM on August 30, 2016


After some googling, yes white/cream/peppered gravy is a bechamel sauce using meat grease instead of butter. Now that I know it's a variation of bechamel sauce, it makes more sense that my french canadian co-workers insisted on calling it sauce instead of gravy.

Bongo_x has it right! Gravy from the gods! I will eat it on just about anything fried, mashed potatoes, biscuits of course, french fries. It's just the best! And it is a staple of Texas cooking. (I would say southern but after moving to Atlanta, I learned that Texas is a bit different than southern, and so don't want to speak for southern cuisine as a whole).
posted by LizBoBiz at 10:13 AM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


We called it "cream gravy" (East Texas)
posted by Miko at 11:39 AM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


Me too!
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:55 AM on August 30, 2016


milk white peacock, that sure looks like it, but without any of the garnish or protein-ey things on top.
posted by sneebler at 9:27 AM on September 1, 2016




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