A Bowl of Cherries
“KEEN EATS” FOR A CONTEMPORARY SET
At the height of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate in the U.S. hovered around 25%. If necessity is the mother of invention, then just about everyone who lived through the 1930s had to dig deep and leverage a little ingenuity. Staying fed was top priority, of course, and it’s impressive to look back and consider that people adapted relatively well. After all, as Ethel Merman first sang it on Broadway in 1931, “Life is just a bowl of cherries. Don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious.”
On the home front, housewives shouldered much of the responsibility of stretching money and resources. That meant buying cheaper cuts of meat or finding substitutes, making the most of high-volume options like root vegetables, beans, and noodles, and never letting leftovers go to waste. Stories of ketchup soup (one part ketchup two parts water), salvaging road kill, and dinners made of weeds illustrate some shocking extremes, but communities pulled together to get each other through. Charities opened soup kitchens and subsidized penny restaurants that allowed people to buy a meal for a nickel or less. The government also stepped in with New Deal initiatives that assisted farmers and led to the food stamp program.
While frugality was a major dictator of eating habits in the thirties, modern conveniences and social changes were also having an impact. Speed, efficiency, and taking advantage of new technologies were now part of the cooking conversation. Things we take for granted now, like self-contained refrigeration, ready-to-cook mixes, and sliced bread were revelations in the 1920s and 30s. Snacks like cheese puffs, Fritos, Twinkies, Lay’s potato chips first hit shelves in the thirties, along with canned soda. And, if you like a creamy casserole, hearty meatloaf, fried chicken, and lots of other American comfort foods, you would have been a happy camper at 1930s roadside diner.
As for the social scene, potluck dinners and cozy social gatherings around the chafing dish were popular, and there was even a Martha Stewart figure to consult in the form of artist and author Mabel Claire. The aspiring sculptor and watercolorist touted kitchen shortcuts, gadgets, and planning in her articles and books. Her message leaned toward modern, but given that this was only a few years after women won the right to vote, it’s no great surprise that “powder your nose” was among her key nuggets of wisdom for home chefs.
To create a menu that takes 1930s sensibilities into account while satisfying modern-day foodies, UMOCA turned to the culinary wizards at the Blended Table. As co-owners Emery Lortscher and Colour Maisch explained, research was key to accomplishing UMOCA’s balance of old and new cuisine.
“We have put together a menu that is inspired by dishes of the time, with vegetables that will be in season and updated versions of classic comfort foods,” says Lortscher,” adding, “We will also be serving a family-style dessert.”
In some ways, today’s high-level cuisine is not so different from that of the early twentieth century, as the best contemporary chefs focus on fresh and readily available ingredients. As Blended Table Chef Tom Grant puts it, “I start with high-quality ingredients and source locally as much as possible. If you begin with a great product, you end up with a great product.”
We’ll look forward to sampling those keen eats with some swell specialty cocktails and (unprohibited) fine wines on June 4!