What Workers ate in America. A Review.

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In 1850, a small can of corn cost around $0.50 in the eastern United States. At the time, many working class Americans earned less than $1.00 per week.

How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working Class Meals at the Turn of the Century, a 2014 book by Katherine Leonard Turner, gives us all kinds of facts like that. Turner stitches together records of cramped urban kitchens, rural vegetable gardens, and bustling local delicatessens to build a book organized around themes like industry, cities, and gender. It will fill important gaps for scholars of food and social history, but its patchwork structure tends to give us too many facts and too few stories. In trying to catalog the diverse working class during the turn of the century, Turner tends to fall short of the vivid specificity required to bring a book of history to life.

Turner’s book is subtitled “a history of working-class meals,” which assumes two things. First, that meals can be categorized by socioeconomic class. And second, that there is such a thing as the working class. The first point underpins Turner’s entire book, though she could be a bit more aggressive in proving it. The second point broadens, but also fractures the book.

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Because of her first assumption, Turner manages to read an entire social history into the rise of baker’s bread. In 1910, there were twice as many bakeries per American as there were in 1880. As Turner demonstrates, this happened over a wide range of cultures and regions, because a driving factor was simple economics. Baking at home required time to prepare ingredients, space for a large oven, and money to buy in bulk. Urban workers often had none of these things, and as bakeries grew more popular, store-bought bread grew cheaper. Bread was practical—you could serve it with every meal and take it to work. This was as true for a construction worker in Muncie, Indiana as for a garment worker in New York City. As a result, Turner argues, baker’s bread took root across the country—not as a function of immigrant culture or local tradition, but as a function of tight budgets and modest living conditions.

Turner is at her best in moments like these, in which a vivid example leaves the reader convinced that—as she puts it in a chapter on mill and company towns—“Family circumstances rather than cultural differences had the greatest effect on family diets” (110). When she focuses on a specific food or geographical region, her book tends to be convincing and enjoyably detailed.

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Turner is less successful when she tries to synthesize her countless and diverse sources, the way she does when describing working-class breakfasts in the introduction:

Coffee or tea and a roll were considered sufficient by Jewish immigrants in New York. Mill hands in Massachusetts might have some beans and bread left over from the day before with coffee. Textile workers in the Piedmont had fried pork and wheat biscuits or cornbread with molasses. Single men in Detroit or Chicago might stop by the neighborhood saloon for a strengthening glass of ale before work (3).

The diversity in diets here is striking and intriguing, but it’s too much to absorb or analyze in a list. What causes such vastly different meals? Distinct local crops, immigrant traditions, working conditions? While Turner offers some answers later in the book—for instance, “quick-breads” like cornbread and biscuits were a simple and practical alternative to yeast bread—the patchwork of detail can be disorienting. It makes the reader question her second key assumption, that the working class should be treated as a coherent entity.

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In a different sort of book, Turner might have devoted each chapter to a single place or even single family, and developed her themes through subsections instead of whole chapters. It’s possible that such a book might have been less valuable for historians, who have relatively few secondary sources like this one. But it would be far more readable for the rest of us, and perhaps more importantly, it would done more justice to the remarkable moments that Turner unearths in her research.

In her chapter on food in cities, Turner quotes from oral histories of Pittsburgh immigrant families. An Italian woman recalls home-baked bread and picking dandelions in the park during the early 1900s:

The police would come then and chase you. They didn’t want you picking dandelion there. And I don’t know why, because it’s better if you pick them out of the ground. We would take them home, wash them, sell some, and eat them in a soup or cook them with oil and garlic. We sold them to Kramer’s restaurant downtown—and that was a real classy restaurant those days. (87).

Sometimes a few details like these can capture a vast story. They don’t tell us how many cans of corn can fit into a week’s wages, or what percentage of miners were recent immigrants. But they help us imagine, to the extent that we can, what a working-class meal might have meant at the turn of the century—everything from fear of the police, to irony that city dandelions were being served at a fancy restaurant, to the simple enjoyment of flowers picked fresh each morning. If we’re lucky, Turner’s next book will be as vivid as the scattered gems in this one.

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Text: Daniel Gross 
Images: creativecell, wikimedia, vi.sualize.us, mainememory

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