What Our Great-Grandparents Ate

HowTheOtherHalfAteIn her book, How The Other Half Ate, historian Katherine Turner says that at the turn of the twentieth century, meat was a luxury for newcomers:

“European immigrants [were] accustomed to eating meat only a few times a year.”

Eggs, milk, cheese, and butter were also not common. The majority of Americans at the time were working class* and could not afford to purchase much. As well, they had no refrigeration to keep perishable foods from going bad. Eggs were only available, and so affordable, “for a few weeks in the summer.”

As to milk:

“Before the late nineteenth century, milk produced in cities was commonly “swill milk” from urban cows fed inexpensively on food scraps or on the mash left over from brewing, which gave their milk a sour taste.”

So, if we are to eat like our great-grandparents, as Michael Pollan implores, we are to eat a diet with little animal food, heavy in starchy foods like bread, potatoes, and oatmeal.

* In her book, Turner states that the majority of Americans in the early 1900s were working-class. That makes the title of her book, although catchy, perhaps misleading. I get the feeling not just half but most Americans had difficulty getting any food on the table, and spent close to half their income doing it. There is a romance about how our forebears ate that doesn’t pan out in reality.

10 thoughts on “What Our Great-Grandparents Ate

  1. Bix Post author

    Pollan may find the diets of our great-grandparents preferable, but from my reading I find them wanting. Our ancestors were, by our standards, poor, and access to food was variable. They ate few fruits and vegetables unless they were wealthy enough to grow them or buy them. (Growing them meant owning land and having time and ability to work the land, or hiring someone to work it.)


  2. Melinda

    My husband’s paternal grandparents were poor Italian immigrants who lived out on Long Island and rented land (very cheaply) to grow fruits, veggies, a few chickens for eggs–they ate well. Over 80% of people at the turn of the 19th century lived in rural areas in the US & hence had farm produce available (either by growing or bartering), as well as foraged wild plants, fungi, etc. It was the poor folks who moved into the city & got assembly-line jobs (no unions to protect their interests) who didn’t even earn a living wage & Hence couldn’t afford to purchase veggies/fruit or land for growing such. That was one of the big issues in the 1896 election–William Jennings Bryan representing farming & rural interests, and McKinley the puppet of Big Industry. It was quite a race, esp. when Bryan gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Dem. Convention. Sadly, McKinley won anyhow, but not by much. You’d love Bryan’s populist speech. Here’s a link to it: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5354/


  3. Marj

    But there were many farmers at that time (as were my grandparents) throughout the country. Agriculture was widespread, but not a majority of those categorized as working class I guess. I think though that although there were bad years, overall they had access to good and varied food especially with food preservation techniques for winter months, etc.


  4. Bix Post author

    Regarding growing your own, Turner said:

    “Prior to the twentieth century, people ate fresh foods only in season, and they ate preserved food or they did without during the rest of the year. Although foodies today advocate a more seasonal way of eating, for those without a choice, seasonality seemed like a curse. It meant long stretches of dull food and poor nutrition through the winter and early spring.”


  5. Melinda

    What Turner said is true–but fresh or dried or canned, there’s nothing wrong with seasonality. If we didn’t demand out of season foods*fresh* year-round now, our climate warming might not be so bad. Just a thought.


  6. Bix Post author

    If we didn’t demand out of season foods today, many of us would perish. No one in this country eats food that is not out of season. There is no such thing as a “Paleo” or a “locavore.” Do Paleo’s only eat eggs in April? Only eat meat from animals that have not been farmed? That they hunted themselves? Most Americans drink coffee. Coffee isn’t grown in the contiguous US. Even dairy has a season, the season of pregnancy. But we artificially inseminate cows to keep them producing milk year around, even “organically raised” cows. Northerners eat oranges, people in the Midwest eat seafood from the oceans.

    Most of us would not survive now if we abandoned the industrial farming model, which assumes the ability to transport. And yet we express little gratitude for this model. It is not without its problems, but it has allowed us to survive, to thrive. We complain, we long for days past when food … grew on trees in the backyard year around? Yet we turn around and do exactly what we complain about, eat food out of season, not local, not humanely raised, not farmed and harvested and processed by people earning a living wage.

    This is the house we have built.


  7. Melinda

    I can’t speak for Paleos, as I wasn’t talking about Paleo diet, which I think is unhealthy. One *could* live on seasonally available foods–if one has the will to do so and as long as one’s tastes are flexible (cruciferous veggies and greens being the primary winter crops grown even around here). I had fresh chard and kale from my yard even over this past winter, and most winters aren’t that bad. It also helps if you’re willing to forage for wild foods (e.g., “weeds”), which I do. I’ve recently made several batches of dandelion-green pesto–delish! But as I said before, if you’re willing to do hot-water-bath canning (easy,cheap, & invented in the early 19th century) and dehydrate fruits, veggies–or even things like meat, fish, eggs, & dairy products if you eat them–you can have seasonal foods all year round. Oh, also fermenting foods allows you to keep them for months. That was a big thing in our family. Gary & I are still eating rehydrated tomatoes (dried last summer in quantity) in our homegrown salad greens (cold-weather/spring crop)! And we still have about 8 qts of home-canned tomato sauce. Tropical fruits like bananas can be replaced by our native paw-paws, and so forth. One doesn’t have to eat citrus fruit–there are wild & domesticated berries that can be eaten fresh, canned, or dried. There are ways to live seasonally, if one has the will to do it. Global climate change–much of which is due to industrial ag–will kill us before relying on seasonal foods. And I despise CAFOs, both for their pollution, and for their extreme cruelty to animals.


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