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Publisher's Summary

The decade-long Great Depression, a period of shifts in the country's political and social landscape, forever changed the way America eats. Before 1929, America's relationship with food was defined by abundance. But the collapse of the economy, in both urban and rural America, left a quarter of all Americans out of work and undernourished - shattering long-held assumptions about the limitlessness of the national larder.

In 1933, as women struggled to feed their families, President Roosevelt reversed long-standing biases toward government-sponsored "food charity". For the first time in American history, the federal government assumed, for a while, responsibility for feeding its citizens. The effects were widespread. Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, "home economists" who had long fought to bring science into the kitchen rose to national stature. Through the Bureau of Home Economics, these women led a sweeping campaign to instill dietary recommendations, the forerunners of today's Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

At the same time, expanding conglomerates introduced packaged and processed foods, which led to a new American cuisine based on speed and convenience. This movement toward a homogenized national diet sparked a revival of American regional cooking that continues to this day.

©2016 Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe (P)2016 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"A highly readable, illuminating look at the many ramifications of feeding the hungry in hard times." (Kirkus)

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Disjointed, Repetitive & Rambling

I started this book with high hopes. The beginning was excellent and the early stories were fascinating. This area of history is important and has much to offer to the understanding of current day approaches to food, assistance and hunger in America.

My problem rests in the nonlinear approach to the writing. Rather than start at the earliest date--the late 1890s and work forward through WWI and into the 1930s in a systematic way--the book jumps randomly through history. We hear about 1918, then 1930, then 1895, then it's back to 1917, then 1931. The authors circle around repeatedly in time and this becomes frustrating and irritating to follow.

What's more perplexing is that there seems to be no reason for this scattered approach. The stories are often repeated and characters reintroduced as new--as if we have not just spent an hour hearing about these events and people already. Odd. This may be due to two authors with differing styles not reading clearly what the other has already written? I will never know. After almost six hours of listening I threw in the towel.

The narration while clear was really too slow. I increased the speed to 1.25 and that was enough to make the reading sound almost normal. Not perfect, but tolerable.

What I would like is that both of the authors and all the editors, publishers and production people involved sit in a room together and be forced to listen to the book. I have a strong feeling that there might be many red faces in the room. Hearing the book read aloud would make very clear the extreme level of rambling and general disorganization present in the writing.

Overall, disappointing for what should have been a scholarly and important entry in the American History genre. If you can stand the nonlinear approach and repetition there are some interesting parts. For me it was maddening.

24 of 29 people found this review helpful

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  • Robert
  • Chicago, IL, United States
  • 06-07-17

Not entirely accurate title

I was expecting more of a culinary history, while I think this turned out to be more of a history of nutrition and the intersection of science, agriculture, and public policy (and how those all don't mix well). There are some personal stories, recipes, and other interesting histories sprinkled throughout. I found it all interesting, but found myself wondering at the end what the "message" was other than some previously unheard history bits.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Incredible Insight into the Birth of US Nutrition

Where does A Square Meal rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This book, though particularly lengthy, never failed to amaze me... It is a glaring example of how looking to the past can help us better understand our present. Understanding the role of nutrition, eating, and the changes in dietary culture in the first half of the 20th century helped me make sense of current attitudes about such topics. I especially appreciated that the author included some culinary histories of urbanites, rural dwellers, and minority groups alike.

What other book might you compare A Square Meal to and why?

Strangely, the only thing that comes to mind is the reading material of my coursework on disability and mainstream attitudes that people must 'earn' or be 'worthy of' handouts, even when economic opportunity is plagued with absence

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

This is the kind of book you nibble away at while cooking and cleaning over the course of weeks. It's relaxing and at times charming

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Not a Niche Book-- Something for Everyone!

Would you consider the audio edition of A Square Meal to be better than the print version?

For me, the audio version fit what my needs were best and it didn't hurt that one of my two favorite narrators was reading! I like to listen to books while doing daily work but sometimes struggle to pay attention, even if the content of the book is interesting. This book kept me thoroughly absorbed and part of that success rested with it being a well read audio book.

What was one of the most memorable moments of A Square Meal?

Like sneaking vegetables into meatloaf, I got a healthy dose of American food culture hidden in one of my favorite subjects-- history. I was particularly interested in the content covering the NYC bread lines, something I'd never heard of before. Bleak and compelling imagery, to be sure.

What about Susan Ericksen’s performance did you like?

Susan Ericksen has a knack for taking you right into the heart of whatever she is reading. You're not just listening to a story, you are THERE and what a difference it makes. In fact, seeing she was this book's narrator was a big motivator for me to try the sample of Square Meal. I often found myself wondering what she thought of this book, since I'd only ever heard her read the crime dramas of J.D. Robb. Wow! She just never disappoints!

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

The songs and verses of yesteryear shared in this book really drew me in, sometimes choking me up, other times with a laugh. They painted a true picture of the personal hardships felt during the Great Depression and how different people decided to cope with it; some defiantly thumbed their noses while others were swallowed by it.

Any additional comments?

There is seriously something for everyone in this book. Foodies, history buffs, minority studies majors, feminists, health and medical professionals, military enthusiasts, sociologists, anthropologists, and probably a dozen other types of people I can't think of just now will all find something in this book to capture their interest. Square Meal is a really well crafted book and deserves a read at least once!

1 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Great narrator, fascinating history

Where does A Square Meal rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

This is one of the better match-ups of reader and book that I've listened to recently.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

She had just enough of a subtle snark here and there to really make listening enjoyable.

Any additional comments?

Really interesting look at the politics of food and poverty relief in between wars. Full of fun factoids ("lambchop and pineapple diet") and tragic realities about the great depression. Also sad because we are still having so many of these same arguments about the place of the federal government vs. private charity in providing life-saving assistance. <br/><br/>The authors do mention racial issues and how they impacted food relief decisions, although I think they could have gone deeper into that area. But overall a fascinating and entertaining read. I did wish there had been an epilogue of sorts--it seemed to end rather suddenly without wrap-up.

1 of 4 people found this review helpful