Tractors and Birds Eye and stores, oh my.

Photographer: Russell Lee/Getty Images

The Depression Was Great for the American Kitchen

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

It’s possible to argue that the Great Depression is the era that made American food as we know it. It was the decade when the refrigerator roared into the American home, when many of the frozen and convenience foods we now take for granted came to market, from Birds Eye frozen peas to Ritz crackers.

The modern kitchen, with its capacious cabinets fixed to the wall, an electric or gas range rather than a ponderous coal stove, a refrigerator keeping foods fresh and dainty for days, was not born in this decade, but the '30s are when we first got a glimpse of that future. The '30s were also a decade of transformation in the food supply chain, with tractor-plowed fields feeding into the recognizable forbears of modern supermarkets. A modern American home cook plopped into a farmhouse kitchen of 1918 would be hard pressed to get a meal out of unplucked chickens and unregulated flames. Send us to the kitchen of 20 years later, and most of us could probably turn out a pretty credible meal.

I’ve always wanted to read a good account of how American food was transformed by those years, so I was pretty excited when a reader alerted me to "A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression," by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe.

As someone who has herself published a book, I know that there is no more tedious and dispiriting review than “The author wrote the book they wrote, rather than this completely different book I’d have been much more interested in.” So I’m not going to review the book, other than to say that they have discerned their task pretty narrowly, making it mostly into an account of the inadequacy of food relief efforts during the Depression.

Obviously one fascinating thread about the Depression era in American food is the hunger, the poverty, the disruption to American households. But even at the height of the Depression, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed, most people were not on relief, and most were not suffering malnutrition.  Those people were, however, seeing some pretty remarkable transformation in how they produced, purchased and consumed food.

  • The tractor. Between 1930 and 1940, despite the fact that credit had dried up and farms were failing left and right, tractors became the majority of the horsepower available on American farms. Tractor technology itself improved during the decade, but the most remarkable advance was simply the number of draft animals who were replaced. This had far-reaching effects on American farms: It meant that more land could be put into cash crops or pasturage for food animals (because an enormous amount of available land had previously been needed simply to grow food to feed the draft animals). It increased the amount that a farmer could produce. It also meant that farmers were more exposed to market forces; you cannot grow diesel fuel on a spare field, and two amorous tractors do not make a new tractor every spring. And the capital required to buy a tractor favored larger farms, one of the first steps along the road to modern agribusiness.
  • The supermarket. The grocery store as we now know it -- with open shelves where the customers gather their own goods -- is a relatively recent innovation. A&P, generally regarded as the first modern grocery chain, entered the 1930s well-positioned to benefit from the Depression, because it had financed expansion out of retained earnings rather than debt. Its ability to offer low prices through bulk purchasing, low labor costs and good logistics helped it to grow even as other stores were failing. Naturally this triggered a backlash, culminating in some rather exciting legislative battles in Congress, and a law, the Robinson-Patman Act, that is still on the books today.
  • Commodity markets. Like stock exchanges, commodity markets -- where things got a little hairy when farm prices collapsed -- got a big new regulatory bill in the mid-1930s, the Commodity Futures Act. Even if you don’t care about commodity exchanges -- and you should! -- it's worth knowing that there’s always something crazy going on when people are trading commodities.
  • Farm policy. The New Deal programs designed to deal with the crisis in American agriculture had vast and enduring effects on the nation’s food supply, changing how people farmed, what they grew and how they got paid for it.
  • Frozen food. Don’t sniff. Yes, frozen vegetables are not as good as vegetables picked at the peak of freshness and taken straight to your table from the garden or farmer’s market. This is the wrong comparison. What frozen vegetables and fish replaced was the usually inferior alternatives like canning, drying or salt-preserving, because most people could not afford to get fresh produce from a hothouse or a farm thousands of miles away. When General Foods debuted the Birds Eye line, it became possible for people to have tasty vegetables out of season or out of region at a reasonable price.
  • The refrigerator. There were other technologies that made inroads during the decade thanks to falling prices, improving design and rural electrification. The waffle iron and the toaster, among others, probably deserve at least a glancing mention, as does the electric range. But indisputable pride of place goes to the refrigerator, which had penetrated 20 percent of American homes by 1932, and 50 percent by 1938. That bears a second look: In the depths of the Great Depression, people are purchasing a major expensive appliance, which suggests just how great refrigerators are. The early models were primitive, but still represented an order-of-magnitude improvement over the icebox, which couldn’t maintain an even temperature, couldn’t freeze anything, and had to have its drain periodically scrubbed with a wire brush to get rid of the disgusting accumulation of green slime. The refrigerator was complementary to other developments, like the supermarket and the frozen food case, allowing less frequent marketing and a wider variety of temperature-sensitive foods.
  • Nutrition science. This almost always gets attention in histories of the era; most of that attention is not very nice. Yes, the concoctions that home economists came up with look awful to the modern eye. (I, for one, never want to find out what “cornstarch pudding” tastes like.) Yes, they got a bunch of stuff wrong. Yes, they were a little overintoxicated with idea of scientifically managing every aspect of human life, leaving no room for small matters such as, erm, flavor. But they were also coming out of an era when people frequently died of food-borne illness, or were permanently debilitated by vitamin deficiencies. And modern writers give far too little credit to the constraints that home economists were working under. Until the 1960s, just making sure you had enough calories on the table was a major part of the American household budget. Limited food supply chains did not offer the rich array of exotic ingredients we now take for granted, and cooking was something that every woman had to do a lot of, even if she had no interest or skill for the task. Providing calories with limited means (and limited cooks) took precedence over learning how to concoct the perfect pot-au-feu. The innovators who tackled these challenges did some harm, but they also did a fair amount of good, and they deserve better than the amused condescension they usually get.
  • Convenience foods. Obviously, the development of convenience foods was not limited to the 1930s. We got powdered gelatin, which is to my mind the first major convenience food, in the late 19th century; cake mixes, invented in the 1930s, properly belong to the 1940s as a mass phenomenon. But the 1930s had some notable contributions: Jiffy Biscuit Mix and Bisquick, refrigerator rolls, dry soup mix, and of course, that notorious old standby, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. For good or for ill, these things transformed American cookery.

We often think of these developments narrowly: A tractor can plow a few more furrows, a refrigerator lets you keep food a little longer, a biscuit mix lets you have bread on the table 30 percent faster. But these sorts of changes are not just shifts in degree, but changes in kind. The tractor changed not just how fast a farmer could work, but the kinds of work he could do; the supermarket and the frozen pea and the refrigerator worked in concert to revolutionize what a housewife could do, how she could do it, and therefore, what other things she could do with the time and energy she had freed up.

And all of these things, working in concert, made radical alterations to the kind and amount of food that we put into our mouths. The Great Depression left a lot of lasting legacies on the American landscape. But the most ubiquitous, and perhaps least noticed, is the way we eat.

  1. Or not suffering it any worse than they had before the Depression. The 1920s and 1930s were the years when understanding of vitamin deficiencies began to make its way into the American consciousness.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net