On Monday Terry Gross interviewed the authors of a book about food during an important time in American history.
This is my take.
If you’d rather just read what I said, go ahead then. You’ll miss all that special nuance I like to add to my recipes, but hey, there is no accounting for taste.
So last week on Fresh Air, an NPR program for people who somehow don’t find themselves listening to baseball or football and dreaming of being at the park eating hot dogs and giving into the cheer “ice cold beer here,” Terry Gross, the host, talked with a couple of people about Depression food.
For the record I was one of those people not listening to sports that night. I don’t get into the Mariners broadcast as much as I probably should, given my self righteous zeal for baseball.
At any rate, depression food. This is not comfort food or stuff you go after when you’re sad and eating your feelings. This was food that was prominent in the Great Depression. Two authors, Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe, wrote a book called “A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.”
The food described sounded as boring as the radio interview did, and that was on purpose. For one thing, those providing the food to the poor people who had to eat it didn’t want them to necessarily enjoy it, because they didn’t like the idea of people actually craving free handouts. As an example, after standing in a long food line you might get served something like canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar and lemon juice. Coe said the handouts were designed to be “a vehicle for nutrition and nutrients, but it wasn’t supposed to make you excited about food.”
Even I could have gotten skinny on free food in the Great Depression.
There was another reason to keep it bland, though, and that might be the uglier side of America at that time, and frankly it doesn’t seem all that better today. There was a bit of an anti immigrant sentiment that kept the food bland. Italian immigrants were eating tasty meals, with garlic and other spices. And they were cooking their noodles to what we call al dente, or as I call it, “almost done.” At the food kitchens, on the other hand, there were instructions to cook the pasta for 25 minutes, which pretty much meant you got mush on your plate.
While there was some concern that too much spiciness was like a stimulant, there was also a concern that spicing up food too much was anti American, too much like the new people in town.
Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to worry about that. For one thing, I was born in 1962, long after the Great Depression. We had our share of boring canned vegetables, but my parents were not stingy with the spice. My guess is some of that was traditional. My grandmother was of German stock, but her sister married an Italian, last name Losasso. There in Denver the Lossassos and Longianatis were numerous along a couple of streets, enough that the small throughway behind my dad’s aunt Rene’s house was called “Losasso Alley.”
The folks along Losasso Alley didn’t call each other on the phone. They’d step on their back porch and yell for each other.
And man they could cook Italian food. My grandmother learned from her sister, and years later we were the beneficiaries of that skill, when she cooked for us, and when my dad learned from her. There wasn’t a lot of exciting food in our house growing up, but Dad could sure slay the Italian cuisine.
If you needed to reason to stop being such a jerk to immigrants, there’s one right there. And maybe you’ll stop being so depressed.