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A Depression Era Recipe for Today’s Troubled Consumer

Has the economic downturn and holiday shopping made you a little stressed out? In the following essay, Megan J. Elias, historian and author of Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture, has the cure–corn meal, powdered milk, and a dose of an under-appreciated discipline known as Home Economics.

Milkorno to the Rescue?

Record rates of home foreclosures, milk at $5 a gallon, childhood obesity on the rise–where are the home economists when you need them? A century ago, a movement arose in America to give ordinary people the kind of power over their everyday lives that they now seem to have surrendered to marketing firms. Biologists and chemists joined sociologists, psychologists, and economists to look at the humdrum of family budgets, daily meals, and intergenerational relations. They sought to understand the connections between all the little things that make up the domestic sphere and the wider world.

Thanks to the home economics movement, rural homemakers learned to make low-cost improvements to their houses. Schoolchildren went on field trips to supermarkets to see what a dollar could buy. In government laboratories researchers worked out the “irreducibles” of the human diet. At every turn, home economists exhorted their audience to make the most out of the least. Buy cheap cuts of meat; use all your leftovers; maximize space in the house you already live in; remake last winter’s coat into jackets for the kids; find entertainment and happiness at home. The theme that united the disparate parts of the movement was self-sufficiency and independence from the market, what the movement’s mother, Ellen Richards, termed an escape from “the tyranny of things” which had become “very real and distressing” at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Throughout the 1920s, however, the home economics message went unheeded as consumer goods production increased, credit was extended, and the new profession of advertising worked its magic on the public imagination. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, home economists were not surprised: indeed, they almost seemed relieved: they had been right?living without planning was not healthy. They sprang into action, working through public relief agencies to teach the nearly lost arts of canning and mending and to remind families under severe stress how to work together.  For the desperately poor, home economists even invented a new food, the quaintly named Milkorno, developed by food scientists at Cornell University. The “milk-os” (there were also milkwheato and milkoato) included a mix of grain flours and powdered skim milk that could provide a meal’s worth of nutrients.

From the Depression through the Second World War, home economists stuck to their message, and some of the empowering reforms they championed–school lunches, truth-in-advertising laws–were achieved. Then postwar prosperity swept over the country in a wave of washing machines and convenience foods, and these reformers lost their footing. In order for the economy to thrive, Americans had to be convinced that buying power was real power, a message too easily internalized.  Through the GI bill, the federal government encouraged young couples to think of home ownership as essential to starting a family, and game shows offered household appliances as glamorous prizes. Schoolchildren, meanwhile, learned to fear communism more than financial insecurity. An advertising film from the era referred to “the fifth freedom . . . the freedom to go shopping when the urge hits you.”

As the nation became more prosperous, nutritionists noticed that an increasing portion of our daily intake of calories was coming from fat. As one noted, “It has been said that a country’s wealth can be measured by its consumption of fat.” So, here we are, overweight, living in houses we can’t afford, and clueless about how to make our increasingly expensive groceries stretch to feed the family. The life skills that home economists wanted Americans to learn were tossed aside as feminine trivia even after Title IX brought boys into their classrooms. Perhaps it is too late for the adults of today to learn anything from this abandoned curriculum, but tomorrow’s credit card users and trans fat eaters might benefit from its revival. In the meantime, up from the dusty archives rises a recipe you might want to try; quickly though, before the rising price of corn makes it too expensive:

Milkorno Polenta with Tomato Sauce:

1 1/2 cups cooked Milkorno.*
1/4 cup grated cheese
1 cup tomato sauce

Place spoonfuls of hot Milkorno on a platter. Pour hot tomato sauce over them, and sprinkle with grated cheese.

*To make a batch of Milkorno, mix 2 parts corn meal with 1 part powdered skim milk. For the polenta recipe, mix 1 cup of corn meal with a 1/2 cup of powdered skim milk and 3 to 4 cups of water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.

Megan J. Elias teaches history at teaches history at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York.

A review of her book Stir It Up appears in the December/January issue of Bust magazine. More Milkorno recipes are available at the Cornell University Library website.

(A Confession from the Penn Press Log: Since we at Penn Press do not have a test kitchen, none of us has actually tasted the dish above. If anyone out there has tried it or any other Milkorno recipe, please let us know in the comments.)