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All Food & Nature in Cities

How the Other Half Ate

The descriptions of diets throughout How the Other Half Ate were fascinating. It’s massively under-appreciated that only in my parents’/grandparents’ lifetimes have middle-class diets in America become decent, not to mention the conditions around food: safe, efficient electric stoves over exploding gasoline and dirty coal ones, home refrigeration and freezing accessible to nearly all. While I have a ton of thoughts on the book, this week I wanted to continue the story, and add a bridge to where I am now. Following the trend of everyday food not seeming to be worth documenting, I interviewed my grandmother for hours this past summer, filming video as I asked her about plastics/synthetics, computers/internet, clothing, transportation, and economic progress in her lifetime, but it didn’t occur me to drill into what she was eating in each phase of her life. So today I called her, plus my aunt and my dad, to understand how diets progressed from the Great Depression to my life.

My paternal grandmother, Beverly, was born in 1931 in Columbus, Ohio. Her eventual husband grew up first in Canada in Ontario, then moved to Columbus. After age 14, he was responsible for feeding himself & renting his own housing as an adolescent. Meeting him as he was turning 18, he was incredibly skinny. Once they started dating, Beverly was earning $200/mo and gave him $50/mo to ensure he had enough food. He’d buy $1 meals (minute steak & salad) but could never afford to buy enough food to feel content. In his college dorm, he had no kitchen, and his roommates could afford more food than he could. He was grateful to come to Beverly’s family home for dinner Sunday nights, ravenous every week.

Growing up during World War II, Beverly’s family (upper middle class) rented a plot of land for a vegetable garden, as well as space in a freezer building in Columbus. They’d purchase a bushel of green beans, a quarter of a cow or lamb, have the various cuts packaged individually, and her father would bring back food from the freezer weekly. Freezers have been a constant theme in her relationship with food. My grandfather grew up seeing men harvesting ice on the lakes of Ontario, keeping it in barns in sawdust, and delivering it for iceboxes. Beverly didn’t get her own at-home freezer until the early 1960s, when the family invested in the largest unit available, a 32 cubic foot freezer to keep all varieties of meals (from sandwiches to casseroles) in while my grandfather took the financial risk of completing his dissertation.

While she never cooked on one, moving into a new rural house in upstate New York in 1957, Beverly arrived to a wood-burning stove in use until then. She got an ancient 4-burner gas stove through my grandfather’s job, then a few years in, after getting a refrigerator, bought a beautiful Westinghouse electric stove. She’s used an electric stove ever since, but never induction. In the summers, on staggering-scale road trips across the North American continent, my grandfather would cook on camping stoves.

With eventually five children to feed, Beverly started a massive vegetable garden, partly because it was cheaper, more because the quality of the fresh produce was superior, if drastically seasonal. My great-grandfather had grown green beans, broccoli, zucchini, tomatoes to escape his desk job in Columbus, OH, and she wanted to continue that. In a 60x100ft garden (!!!), they grew beans, watermelon, spinach, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, tomatoes, plus an apple orchard. My dad and his siblings provided an unlimited amount of free labor to this project, with daily weeding. Living on a lake, my grandfather shoveled the fish that would rot out of the lake in the summer into the garden to fertilize unproductive soil. One summer night, a neighbor’s rooster ate all the tomatoes they’d grown, so he shot it, the family ate it, and he left the bones on the neighbor’s porch.

The book covers the transition from at-home bread baking to processed, store-bought bread, and Beverly arrived into the latter era, eating white bread from grocery stores for decades. My aunt recalled the switch to wheat bread in 1978, at the same time as more fibrous cereals and for the first time, yogurt, part of a trend of nutritional awareness my grandmother charted throughout her life. She graduated from a Home Economics program at Ohio State, excelling in her courses on cooking & nutrition, yet called herself/the primitive curriculum “totally ignorant” of concepts like whole wheat and limiting processed food. The primary processed foods they ate were the white bread, Campbell’s soup & baked beans, pre-made TV dinners, Kraft Mac N’ Cheese, boxed cake mixes, and puddings, but by preference and economic need, she did more home cooking than most families she knew. She has eaten meat daily her entire life, especially at dinner. She wasn’t aware of cholesterol levels until the 1980s, when they reduced daily bacon consumption. They didn’t like frying food other than French fries, but my aunt noted her friends ate a lot more fried food like fried baloney casseroles growing up.

There was a formula for meals. Growing up, meat + potatoes + vegetables was the standard combination. Sunday nights, they’d have a fancier cut of meat, like a roast. As parents: steak with French fries and salad; roast chicken with peas and mashed potatoes. Every night, there was dessert: ice cream, pie, processed puddings (chocolate, lemon). My dad recalled the fancy dessert for birthdays: boxed angel food cake with whipped cream & fresh strawberries. Better Homes & Gardens was the cookbook with simple, “serviceable” recipes, though never any spices beyond salt & pepper. While she had a drawer of family recipes she didn’t have time for, that one cookbook was nearly her only until Life Magazine in the 1960s, when she got basic recipes from other countries/cuisines for the first time.

The majority of food came from supermarkets: IGA in New York, Kroger when the family moved back to Ohio. With five children, they needed an enormous amount: one breakfast would demolish a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread. Living in rural New York then on the outskirts of Columbus, they were surrounded by farms, so bought milk from local dairies and tried to get produce from those farms when it was available, because while it was more expensive, it was fresher & more nutritious. My grandfather helped with a lot of grocery shopping, but ultimately my grandmother considered putting food on the table end-to-end her responsibility as a mother. Meals were critical time together for the family; everyone was expected to help and eat together. The kids’ lunches were obligatorily from the school cafeteria.

They were always careful to conserve money on food. My aunt recalled not buying expensive fresh oranges trucked from Florida to instead buy a can of frozen orange juice concentrate, which they’d dilute and share for breakfast only on Sundays. They didn’t recall exactly how much they spent on food, but pegged it far less than half their income. Preserving food took the form of canning in glass jars (tomatoes, fruit) to save money. They made freezer jam with fresh strawberries at home. And froze food constantly, both fresh and prepared, and ate a lot of frozen vegetables, like peas and green beans. The family despised canned vegetables, though Beverly noted her sister mostly used canned vegetables. Fruit that wasn’t local was canned, like Dole pineapple, but the selection was limited; my dad didn’t encounter exotic fruit like mangos, coconuts, avocados until after college (post-1980). They bought premade TV dinners as treats or for travel, but stayed away from most pre-prepared food.

As a child, when the war came in ‘41, my great-grandfather (Beverly’s father) switched from butter to margarine (a sealed bag of 1lb with an orange bead you kneaded in). He believed margarine was healthier for his heart problem, and it was cheaper, tasted terrible. It took a decade to learn it wasn’t healthier. Now, my grandmother likes that butter is a natural product, and uses it in limited quantities instead of trying to substitute it. Butter has always been her fat of choice.

My grandmother raised her children with a discipline around food. Candy was a treat they had to ask permission for, and never a snack: snacks were yogurt & fruit, wheat toast, a bowl of cereal (rarely super sweet cereals), peanut butter on crackers. They didn’t bring home junk food. Summer was a bit of an exception, while driving on cross-country trips, but during the year, they never drank soda or kool-aid. The same practices influenced my parents, as it’s how I grew up treating junk food as well.

Progress is an overarching narrative in how she talks about her life, constantly trying to achieve higher levels of consciousness. She’s always been an early adopter, from the original Macintosh and polyester fabric to switching to organic produce, framing changing her behavior as soon as reading about how something was better as “our responsibility.” She thanked the TV programs and newspaper articles that taught her about better nutrition throughout her life, and made her aware of how diet & nutrition change how long you live—which she framed as “relatively new” ideas in her life.

Though money is less tight now, the effects of growing up during the Great Depression live on. Beverly continues to rely on her freezer, eat conservatively, watch the nutritional balance, and keep expenses down. She described this week buying pre-prepared meals or pizza from a local grocery store, splitting them into three portions to keep the cost ($12 → $4) & calorie count down, and freezing the other portions. To this day, she maintains two enormous freezers, always stocked.