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In the fight to restore America to prosperity, food became a weapon

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT was partial to fine foods expertly prepared. He enjoyed filet mignon, lobster, oysters, crab, Lake Superior whitefish, and king salmon. He had a special affection for caviar. However, two weeks into his new administration, in a show of solidarity with the American people, President Roosevelt sat down to a lunch of hot deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, and prune pudding. The president’s budget lunch balanced calories and nutrients: eggs for iron and protein, potatoes for energy, prunes and tomatoes for vitamins A and C—all for 7.5 cents! Reporters asked what he thought of the food. It was “good,” FDR said; he had cleaned his plate. Newspapers published recipes for all three dishes.

Food, like language, is always in motion. War, technology, migration, and commerce all reshape diet. During the 1930s, American home economists interrupted that process and, in one colossal push, aimed to replace traditional food ways with a scientific eating program. Amid Americans’ growing fears of malnutrition, the job of creating nutritional standards went to a female-dominated branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Bureau of Home Economics.

During World War I, the Office of Home Economics, as it was then called, had become a hotbed of culinary research. Home economists figured out what Americans should eat now that the country was shipping beef, pork, wheat, and sugar to troops overseas. Cornmeal and barley flour substituted for wheat, honey and sorghum for sugar, and beans and nuts for animal protein. The office distributed recipe cards. To explain the science behind the recipes and help homemakers plan menus, wartime food guides introduced vitamins, calories, and the concept of food groups.

The USDA made the Office of Home Economics a bureau in 1923. Bureau Chief Louise Stanley was a professor of home economics with a doctorate in chemistry from Yale. Stanley staked out a place for home economics in government, assembling the largest staff of female scientists anywhere in the country. The bureau’s divisions—Clothing and Textiles, Economics, and Food and Nutrition—received a constant stream of letters requesting help that intensified as the economy worsened. In 1930, bureau food economist Hazel Stiebeling composed an emergency diet for Southerners wracked by drought. The bureau expanded mimeographed pages into Adequate Diets for People of Limited Income, a first in a series of increasingly sophisticated federal food guides. When letters began pouring in from women struggling to feed their children, bureau guides served as both prescriptions for rational eating and as nutritional primers. The booklets made clear how vitamins and minerals contributed to good health, information, which most people at best had sketchy knowledge.

Depression-era food guides accepted the bleak reality that some Americans ate insufficiently even in prosperous times and were now so poor that a balanced diet was beyond their means.

To remedy this, in 1933 the bureau published Diets at Four Levels of Nutritive Content and Cost, a booklet that related menu to income, a formula reprised in 1936’s Diets to Fit the Family Income.

Diets to Fit the Family Income described how high-end households earning more than $5,000 ($85,000 today) a year could afford a “Liberal Diet” of varied foods in generous amounts. The “Moderate Diet,” with fewer protective foods but “fully satisfactory in all nutritional details,” was for families living on $3,000 to $4,000. A “Minimum Diet,” for households earning between $1,000 and $2,000, met nutritional needs, but as cheaply as possible, with just enough fruits and vegetables, eggs, and meat to maintain health. A badly strapped family’s sole option was the “Restricted Diet,” recommended only for short periods. Based on bread and milk, this regimen had no safety margin if someone scorched a pot of beans or the flour went moldy.

Nutrition in the 1930s was an emotionally fraught subject. Vitamins were of special concern. Mothers feared that “hidden hunger” from vitamin deficiencies could be injuring their children. Home economists leveraged those fears. Bureau food guides warned that poor childhood nutrition could handicap a child for life, suggesting that one false move on a homemaker’s part risked lives of night blindness and bowlegs.

Aunt Sammy, the USDA’s version of Betty Crocker, the imaginary homemaker associated with General Mills brands, made it all sound manageable. The star of the widely distributed radio show “Housekeepers’ Chat,” Aunt Sammy was a voice of reassurance during the 1930s. About vitamins, Aunt Sammy said in her small-town cadence, “Most of us who have a simple but varied diet, and are without food prejudices, get our supply of vitamins whether we think about it or not.” Aunt Sammy’s taste in food was equally no-nonsense. She appreciated an ancestral American diet that had fallen out of favor. Cracked whole wheat, historically used to make breakfast porridge but in the 1930s thought of as animal feed, was among frugal foods the bureau promoted. Aunt Sammy, portrayed by multiple women, became its champion. In a 1932 broadcast, she extolled cracked wheat’s virtues:

Maybe it’s my Scotch blood. Maybe it’s the early training from a thrifty grandmother. Maybe it’s the hungry people I’ve seen and the undernourished children. Anyway, I always hate to see good food going to waste, especially when pocketbooks are thin. That’s why I want to remind you today about one of our best foods which has been neglected by housewives in recent years. Whole wheat, wheat in the kernel, is plentiful and cheap these days especially in the wheat belt. You can get wheat at the feed store or mill or maybe from a farmer in your neighborhood. Yet, many people I’ve been hearing about have gone hungry because they don’t know how to use this wheat, how to fix it in tasteful dishes that the whole family will enjoy.

Whole wheat in milk chowder with carrots, onions, parsley, and pork; whole wheat with diced beef and chili pepper; whole wheat scalloped with liver and bacon; and whole wheat stewed with tomatoes and served on toast were a few of Aunt Sammy’s suggestions. Another concoction, combining whole wheat, fish, and tomatoes, exemplified the bureau’s search for new ways to use low-cost ingredients.

Well aware that many people would have preferred not to eat foods it was endorsing, the bureau was always trying new ways to counter food bias. One was to dress up low-status foods like beans, a critical source of cheap protein. To lend elegance to split pea soup, why not float a slice of lemon on top and sprinkle with bright red paprika and finely chopped parsley? Or mash beans, form dainty patties, and fry them like croquettes? Aunt Sammy suggested stuffing onions with them (p. 63).

The bureau timed the release of  new food guides with “Housekeepers’ Chat” and “The Market Basket,” a weekly USDA newspaper column. The same information reached rural America through home extension agents working with land grant colleges that used bureau food guides as textbooks. In 1934, the bureau attracted a media ally. In the 1920s, reporter Gove Hambidge, interested in the marriage between science and food, had published articles in Ladies’ Home Journal about how that union was changing American cuisine by enabling manufacturers to supply products of unparalleled purity and consistency. Home cooks were reaping the benefits of labor-saving devices and canned or “frosted”—frozen—foods that defied the old laws of seasonal availability. When the Depression began, Hambidge focused on nutrition. The Bureau of Home Economics could not have asked for a more dedicated spokesperson. For Ladies’ Home Journal, Hambidge wrote “Make the Diet Fit the Pocketbook,” an article on the bureau’s income-oriented diets that reached more than 2.5 million readers. Hambidge expanded the article into a book, Your Meals and Your Money, and then joined the USDA staff as an advocate for nutrition education.

Eleanor Roosevelt pours milk at a Vassar’s childcare school in 1933. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone Via Getty Images)

The bureau’s main patron was Eleanor Roosevelt. Before the Roosevelts even moved into the White House, she wrote to Bureau Chief Louise Stanley suggesting they meet, part of her plan to make the most of Washington’s “women executives” and their talents. The two corresponded regularly, with Stanley a frequent guest at the first lady’s all-female press conferences. In personal appearances, in print, and on radio, Eleanor talked up the bureau’s work. When critics asked why government money should pay for research on how to clean rugs and put up preserves, Eleanor dashed off a letter to the newspapers insisting that the countless people helped by the bureau more than compensated for its small cost to taxpayers.

In a more personal act of patronage, Eleanor brought home economics into the White House. At Cornell University early in 1933, she sampled one of the economy meals devised by her friend Flora Rose, a noted home economist. On Rose’s menu was polenta made with Milkorno, a compound of dry skim milk and ground corn Rose had developed to feed the unemployed. Eleanor was so impressed she decided to add the economy menus to the White House diet.

Such public events, in which people of note—politicians mostly, and usually men—endorsed Depression menus, had become a civic ritual, but no one expected notables to eat that way at home. Eleanor, however, saw a teaching opportunity. She believed home economics could relieve the drudgery of housekeeping. A woman who practiced balanced nutrition was guarding her family’s health—and by extension that of the country—when it was most at risk.

Born into a household full of servants, Eleanor was an unlikely gastronomic role model. By her own account, the one dish she cooked was scrambled eggs, prepared à table in a silver chafing dish. However, as first lady she was uniquely positioned to showcase food recommended by home economists and to inspire America’s home cooks.

And what better way to make her point than by serving the same food to her own family?

The president’s budget luncheon signaled a regime change. The first family would eat turkey tetrazzini and corned beef hash, like normal Americans. Culinary economizing extended to guests, starting day one at the White House. The inaugural lunch—cold jellied bouillon, chicken and salmon salads, bread and butter sandwiches—was a long way from the elaborate spreads that had been par for the course. For dinner that night, Eleanor requested oyster stew with crackers, scrambled eggs, creamed chicken, peas, rolls, and biscuits. The White House butler called it “a New England countryman’s supper.”

The departure from precedent scandalized the White House staff, but Eleanor had allies. The new housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, whom the first lady had brought from Hyde Park, shared her employer’s appreciation for “plain food, plainly cooked.” A homemaker with no professional kitchen experience, Nesbitt, 59, was in charge of provisioning and menu planning, her culinary fingerprints easily recognized in dishes like ham loaf and chipped beef and noodle casserole, foods more at home in a school lunchroom than the presidential mansion.

Under Nesbitt, the White House kitchen served not only some of Washington’s dreariest food but also some of its most dismally prepared, as recorded by appalled dinner guests. Senator Hiram Johnson of California described a meal with FDR that included “indifferent chowder,” followed by “some mutton served in slices already cut which had become almost cold, with peas that were none too palatable.” When writer Ernest Hemingway was invited to dine at the White House in 1937, he was warned to expect the worst. Still, he was taken aback by the “rainwater soup” and “rubber squab.” Hemingway was spared Nesbitt’s insipid vegetables, known as one of her many dishes to avoid. Experienced guests made sure to eat before leaving home, and not a few offered medical excuses, Nesbitt observed. “Sometimes it seemed to me that practically all the leading men in the world had ulcers, and often when a group of them were having dinner in the White House, we’d have as many as 150 forbidden items,” she said.

Nesbitt became an expert at deflecting criticism—even the president’s. One of FDR’s favorite foods was Maryland terrapin soup. His complaint that the Nesbitt version was watery bruised her feelings—until she learned that FDR was in a stew over the gold standard. Nesbitt assured herself she was a convenient punching bag for his frustrations. From then on, she chalked up his grumbling to workplace pressures, dismissing the Boss’s comments as more of the same “food peevishness” found in so many other men.

To be fair, Nesbitt had an impossible assignment. Eleanor had volunteered her husband for a culinary experiment guaranteed to make him unhappy. No dish may have put Franklin Roosevelt further off his feed than “salads”—assemblages of mayonnaise, canned fruit, gelatin, and cream cheese. Eleanor, by contrast, was content with a supper of milk and crackers. “Victuals to her are something to inject into the body,” son James said.

“I would be most unhappy if I could not buy new books,” Eleanor told a group of women, “But having beefsteak for dinner would mean nothing to me whatsoever.”

Still, Eleanor cared about food—not for how it tasted, but for what it represented. Scientific cookery, a cuisine of female empowerment, spoke to the feminist in Eleanor. The progressive in her believed this diet was good for society. Scientific cookery also resonated with Eleanor’s ambivalence regarding the pleasures of the table. Growing up, she had learned self-denial from her mother and grandmother. With millions of Americans destitute, those childhood lessons seemed more pertinent to her than ever, and as first lady she made it her mission to share them with the country. Her 1933 book, It’s Up to the Women—part political manifesto, part homily, part homemaking manual—invited readers to break their dependence on material pleasure and return to their ancestors’ values. To get them started, Eleanor devoted a full chapter to the kind of food those abstemious ancestors would have sanctioned. In home economics, Eleanor found a way of thinking about food that was consistent with her values. Built on self-denial, scientific cookery dismissed pleasure as nonessential, treating it as an impediment to health. Placing too much stock in the way food tasted would steer us to the wrong kinds of foods—rich, highly seasoned, and extravagant. But where our taste buds failed us, science would jump in. Home economists hitched their cause to history’s most beloved first lady, and with her support they helped reshape a nation’s culinary consciousness.