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Vintage cooking by the book

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It’s apparent to both casual observers and experts alike that America has a hunger crisis. Food Depot lines have caused traffic snarls in Santa Fe over the past month. A survey by the Brookings Institution done in late April found that nearly one-fifth of mothers say their kids aren’t getting enough to eat.

Though the grassroots culinary organization Slow Food Santa Fe was unable to gather for their scheduled monthly “Dinner and a Book” discussion, their April book selection was undeniably timely. “A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression” by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, published in 2016, offers a deep dive into how the worst economic crisis of the 20th century shaped the eating habits of America today. As Congress argues over food stamp benefits, it feels newly useful to bone up on how previous generations made their soups and hamburgers stretch to fit dwindling budgets.

“A Square Meal” hopscotches around the formative influences of Depression-era cooking, including World War I-era U.S. Food Administration guides to food economy and the introduction of government-sponsored cooking classes. These nationalized attempts at culinary education were aimed at home cooks whose ideas about what constituted healthy food were wildly divergent. In the early 20th century, the science of nutrition had decades to go in its development and many Americans believed a loaded ice cream sundae at the local soda fountain made for a perfectly reasonable lunch.

One 1930s home cook voiced the anxiety of feeding a family in reduced circumstances: “Keeping the family nourished on half of what we had to spend four years ago takes … knowing whether you get more protein for your money in eggs or meat, whether there’s enough calcium for Johnny’s bones and teeth in spinach or do you have to buy the more expensive vegetables. It takes knowledge of the chemistry of cooking: the effects of heat on vitamins, and how to cook cheap cuts of meat so that they are nourishing and palatable.”

In other words, it’s wonderful to get a box of free or discounted protein and veggies, but the work has only just begun at that point.

Some of the ways in which Depression-era housewives expanded their tables are familiar. The ’30s saw the rise of the humble casserole, wherein cooks could repurpose leftover meals by baking them in disguise with other ingredients. Whole wheat began to be incorporated into unlikely dishes in order to bulk them up – it was scalloped with liver and bacon or softened in milk chowder with carrots and onions. Low-status staples such as beans were presented in novel new forms – as the centerpiece of a breaded, baked and stuffed onion, for example. Hamburger meat was stretched with potatoes and flour; cereal grains were fortified with milk.

“A Square Meal” also details the same inspirational self-sufficiency some gardeners and home cooks are drawing on during the current pandemic. For New Yorker food writer Sheila Hibben, that economic disaster presented the opportunity for Americans to embrace their own regional specialties. “This depression, taking people back into the home, may have its silver lining,” she wrote in 1932. “Home-makers may begin to appreciate the simple, pleasurable dishes of their own country and serve them to their families.” Hibben hoped Americans could stop looking to Europe as the ideal of gourmet eating and delve into the delights of their own homegrown cooking.

Another, more vintage, book than “A Square Meal” offers a succinct, timeless primer on how to get back to those basics. “How to Eat Better for Less Money” by the late great chef James Beard and Sam Aaron, first published in 1954, provides the nitty-gritty how-to compendium that struggling home cooks still need.

The diverse chapters in How to Eat Better for Less Money (“Appetizers and First Courses,” “Meat,” “Vegetables,” “Dessert,” and “Menus for Entertaining Economically and Successfully”) are filled with advice that’s still surprisingly handy in 2020. Ingredients go from dry mustard and saffron to hot dogs and cream cheese. Recipes riff on ideas for gussying up what’s around. Three variations on cold split-pea soup involve cream and chives; tomato sauce, almonds and curry powder; or evaporated milk, chopped hard-boiled egg and sliced cucumber.

Beard offers up such gourmet shortcuts as frozen crabmeat for curried crepes, canned clams for spaghetti, or five different ways to make canned corned beef hash into a meal for three people. There’s no from-scratch snobbery here. Beard mildly advises, “If you take the trouble to make your own corned beef hash, the results will be remarkably good.”

Beard’s solutions are so creative, and his recipes cover so much ground that you truly believe by the end of “How to Eat Better for Less Money” that “there is no need to go to the penny-pinching extreme of serving meat loaf made with half a pound of hamburger and one cup of oatmeal, as some people do.” Indeed, if you’re looking to stretch your supply of ground beef, there’s a Depression-era recipe in the best budget cookbook 2020 has to offer: the internet. It’s called an Oklahoma burger, in which half a bulb of crispy shredded onion is smashed into one beef patty, then caramelized together in a cast-iron pan, and served on a bun with American cheese. New Mexicans could load the meat further with green chile. Anyway, it sounds delicious.

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