Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

A Century of Food 1930-1939

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Stock Market Woes
The Great Depression affected the U.S. more than other industrialized countries. Unemployment affected many including the middle class. Many people lost their homes, ate garbage and food scraps and lived in empty lots or in shacks made of cardboard.

“Saint” Al Capone? and Soup Kitchens
According to the food historians, the Great Depression was not that much of a lack of food leading to starvation, but a time of changing to cheaper cuts of meat and protein sources. Vegetables and beans were suggested as substitutes which was advocated in the revised edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (Little, Brown & Company, 1930.) For example, people bought chuck instead of sirloin and often purchased cheaper cuts like heart, brains, and feet. Private soup kitchens and bread lines were available for those in need. Ironically, the gangster Al Capone set up the first soup kitchen to paint himself as the “savior of Chicago”. However, they still sent him to jail. Accepting charity in those days was seen as shameful, so people did not relish standing in line for food and often hid their faces from view.

Unemployed men queued outside a depression sou...

Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone, 02-1931 – NARA – 541927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Post Prohibition
People began drinking again after 1933 and by the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office, all alcohol was legal again. The wine industry had suffered and many had gone out of business or had been closed for thirteen years. In 1933, there were about 130 wineries left in California and 150 in the country down from 1,000 pre-Prohibition. Equipment rusted and casks rotted. The wine produced in 1934 so was terrible that it was often still fermenting when first shipped; some blew up on store shelves. All this affected the reputation of the quality of wine and it took decades to recover from it.

“Mock Apple Pie”
Food Marketing changed during the Depression. Apples were sold on street corners in cities; movie theaters began to sell popcorn and probably most important, drive-in restaurants that began in the 1920’s became more popular, this time with carhops that delivered food to your car. Dishes such as macaroni and cheese, casserole of all kinds, meat loaf, all kinds of hot dogs and hamburgers were the most popular. The National Biscuit Company peddled a recipe using its new product, Ritz Crackers in 1933 called Mock Apple Pie, much cheaper than using real apples. In 1937, Spam by Hormel made the scene in most households. Its long shelf life of more than seven years made it attractive to consumers. It became so popular that fan clubs were formed to honor and praise this much-beloved “meat”.


Betty Crocker
Betty Crocker was “born”. The name was coined in 1921, but the first portrait appeared in 1936. She was first depicted as a serious, unsmiling image, more of a housewife approach. She looked like someone’s grandmother or aunt until 1950 when she began to smile. It wasn’t until 1996 that she had the biggest smile. Over time she evolved from the housewife look to that of a professional business woman who worked outside the home.


Restaurant du Pavillon de France
At the end of this decade in 1939, the New York’s World Fair opened with dozens of international restaurants on site. The best of these was Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France which had a staff handpicked from France’s best bistros and cafes. Patrons were served exquisite meals of high gourmand quality which introduced America to haute cuisine and a dining experience they more than likely had never had before. After the fair, the maitre d’hotel Henri Soule moved the restaurant to New York City where it remained until his death in 1966. His reign was extraordinary in that he ruled the seating in his dining room, saving seven best tables nearest the door for special guests like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and Joseph Kennedy. The influence of fine French dining continued with many of the employees opening their own restaurants using what they had learned from this experience. One former employee, Jacques Pepin who had worked as an assistant said: the cooking area was “very large – like 30 people-and it was all structured, with an area for the sauce, for the fish, for the rotisserie…..and the ingredients were certainly extraordinary, with a great deal of imported food from France; truffles, goose liver pâte, and even fish.” It’s legacy continues to this day.

The Ice Age
The most influential appliance during this decade was most likely the refrigerator. Until its appearance, people kept food from spoiling in streams, cellars, snow and ice. Food poisoning in the warmer months was rampant. The ice box was commonly used since the 1800’s. Harvested and cut ice was hauled home to home on a horse-drawn cart and put in the family’s icehouse where it lasted for months. City dwellers would place a card in the window to order their ice for delivery from the iceman. By 1920, there were some 200 different refrigerator models on the market but they were not for everybody, if anyone. The motors were so large that they were kept in a different room and cost about $700. The coolants were a problem that often leaked and killed people. In 1930, Frigidaire began cooling with chlorofluorocarbons and people began to use the small machines with more frequency. Before the refrigerator, “frozen desserts and frozen salads were nonexistent or just for wealthy people” wrote Sylvia Lovegren, author of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. By 1937, more than 2 million Americans owned refrigerators.


Here Come the Diets
The diet movement picked up a little in the 1930’s. In 1930, the Hollywood Diet (aka the Grapefruit Diet) is introduced. The diet involves eating 585 calories a day for 18 days, only dining on grapefruit, hard boiled eggs, green vegetables and melba toast. In 1936 diet guru Victor Lindlahr inspires thousands of radio listeners to tune in to his regular broadcast, “reducing party”.


The most popular snack cake has to be Twinkies. Twinkies were one of the few foods included in the millenium time capsule and will probably be the only food to still be edible when it is opened in 2100 due to its long shelf life. When gorillas escaped from a zoo in Ohio in 1976, they were recaptured by luring them back into their cage with Twinkies. In San Francisco, Dan White was given a guilty verdict on a lesser charge of manslaughter after killing mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, city supervisor. His lawyer argued that he was mentally impaired by a high intake of Twinkies and this case became known as the Twinkie defense. Twinkies were invented by a Hostess plant manager in Chicago, Jimmy Dewar in 1930 as a way to use little used shortcake pans (except in strawberry season). I’m not advocating eating Twinkies but one cannot deny that its inventor lived to be 87 and claimed to eat three of them a day. Maybe it’s the preservatives. Twinkies were in the news a few years ago when they were pulled from shelves due to Hostess Brands filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But they are back thanks to the private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulous & Co., which struck a $410 million deal with Hostess Brands. The new Twinkies have a new characteristic of having a longer shelf life of 45 days compared to the previous 26 days of a few years ago. Long live the Twinkie!!!




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