Ah, the Jazz Age — it elicits images of sultry, wild jazz bands, speakeasy raids, and social, artistic, and cultural flourishing. Of course, the wild and wonderful Jazz Age (or Roaring Twenties) — which is defined as post World War I, 1920 through the 1930s — also saw the Great Depression hit around 1929, which would have a massive impact on American families and culture, including the food people ate.
Around the 1920s, the food people consumed saw some big changes — namely because of the advent of canned and frozen foods (which helped soldiers eat more easily and also reduced prep time in the kitchen for families). Condiments also became a thing. (Can you imagine a life without ketchup? Yeah, neither can we.)
Not every house was alike.
When it came to frozen foods, it’s important to remember that not every house was fitted with a fridge. Many wealthier families had a fridge in addition to a stovetop, whereas people with less money used food storage rooms. The fridges were generally pretty small, too, if you did have one.
This is very different from what we’re used to today:
Popular processed foods included graham crackers, Oreos, and tea biscuits. People could thank the popularization of processed foods for those easy, quick snacks. The Creative Palate states, “Fresh O.J. and tomato juice became available year-round while processed foods, gas stoves, and the ‘Frigedaire’ (1925) modernized many American kitchens forever.”
A lot was changing during the 1920s and ’30s.
Time for breakfast.
So what would a 1920s or ’30s family actually cook for breakfast? Unlike their predecessors in the 1900s (who munched on rice, cold meat, and jellied veal — yeah, we know — for breakfast), folks during the jazz age loved a good ol’ pancake. Fortunately for us, some things never change.
Give us our flapjacks, please![fm_youtube url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhErXTgsZag]
But, what kind of pancake?
If you want to try your hand at an old-fashion 1920s-style pancake, here’s a good video. Just remember that they used lard in their ingredient list. And according to an actual recipe from the 1920s, found on the Melissa K. Norris blog, pancakes from this time could easily be gluten-free, egg-free, and refine sugar-free. The recipe instead includes buckwheat flour, cornmeal, year, water, salt, molasses, and baking soda.[fm_youtube url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTywzd7QXP4]
But pancakes weren’t the only thing on the table.
Sure, pancakes seem pretty tame, right? Well, people in the 1920s also noshed on codfish and bacon for their morning meal. Yep, fish in the morning. According to My Recipes, a 1922 edition of Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries offered up a sample breakfast menu. On it was: grapefruit, codfish cakes, bacon muffins, and coffee.
Definitely not something we’re used to today.
For dinner, they might reach for rabbit meat. This meat was a big deal, as it was cheap and readily available for most people. Gizmodo reveals, “[T]he larger producers and processors of rabbit meat during the 1920s and 1930s were located in Southern California, especially in the Los Angeles area.” As L.A. became more industrialized, its rabbit meat production lessened.
There were also chicken dishes similar to what we’d eat today.
A family might also snack on Chicken à la King, which consists of chicken and veggies topped with a thick cream sauce. This was then served over rice. Later, in the 1930s, people couldn’t afford much, so they opted for the easier and cheaper chipped creamed beef. Chipped creamed beef is salted and dried beef, usually out of a can, with a cream sauce.
Cream sauces were clearly a hit.
But don’t worry, there were plenty of salad options.
Salads, like the Waldorf Salad or Chinese Chicken Salad, were very popular in the ’20s and ’30s as well. In the 1928 cookbook, The Rector Cook Book, the ingredients of a Waldorf Salad included apples, celery, and mayo. By 1939, it got an upgrade with bitter greens and paprika (more on paprika below).
Let’s discuss Hoover stew.
If people wanted something a little heartier, they might also turn to Hoover Stew, which is made from macaroni and hot dogs. This was especially popular during the Great Depression, since it was quick, easy, and generally more affordable. Named after President Herbert Hoover, this stew was often served in soup kitchens at the time.
What’s for dessert?
Well, that would be pineapple upside-down cake — which we still enjoy today. Yum. According to What’s Cooking America, “In 1925, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a contest calling for pineapple recipes with judges from the Fannie Farmer’s School, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s Magazine on the judging panel. It is said that 2,500 of the 60,000 submissions were recipes for pineapple upside-down cake.”
This is what led to the popularity of the cake.
And party food?
If folks were having friends over, they might serve up snacks like deviled eggs. Around this time, Hungarian immigrants helped popularize paprika, which we all love to sprinkle over our eggs these days. “Sometime after Christopher Columbus brought it over from the New World, paprika made its way to Hungary. It has been a staple in Hungarian food ever since and it was the Hungarians that gave it the name Paprika,” states MySpicer.com.
We still recognize a lot of Jazz Age foods.
There are plenty of other popular 1920s snacks that we recognize today. These include Baby Ruth Candy Bars, Wonder Bread, Hostess Cakes, Velveeta Cheese, and Popsicles. Modern Pioneer Mom explains that processed foods were gaining popularity because of all the new food production methods brought on by World War I. Since they promised to save housewives time and energy, they were a surefire hit.
Okay, so what about the libations, friends? We’d be remiss to ignore the impact of beverages on this era.First of all, this time was technically dry, due to the Prohibition. This booze-free era lasted from 1920 to 1933 and was a result of highly moralistic, religious, and political pressures, leading to a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of these drinks.
In fact, rates of liver disease did drop, and consumption did significantly decrease — at least temporarily.
The rise of the speakeasy.
But that didn’t mean people weren’t sneaking a drink here or there. Around this time, speakeasy bars — illicit saloons where you’d have to speak quietly so as not to get caught or encourage the police — were popular until about 1933. Their favorite drinks? The Gin Rickey, which was made up of bathtub gin, lime juice, and seltzer. Bathtub gin was often formulated with juniper berry juice and glycerin. Other popular drinks included the Mint Julep and champagne.
A lot of it was probably gross, as it was produced illegally.
These secret hideouts were actually a hit.
According to the book, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, speakeasies, despite being super illegal, were actually pretty popular. They were a public secret if you will. They made loads of money and were often run by organized crime groups. They were commonly raided by the police, but many were not shut down. One of the most compelling aspects of the speakeasy scene was that people from all backgrounds and groups would gather there.
They were surprisingly inclusive.
Interest in Italian food also grew during this time.
Oh, and Italian-American speakeasy owners would serve up Italian food along with wine (which certain loophole laws said could be produced within reason). This inspired major interest in Italian food, since it was seen as “exotic” and “cultured.” Interestingly enough, First We Feast states that Americans were initially grossed out by Italian flavors.
Meatballs were a specific hit.
Southern Italians who emigrated to the U.S. didn’t have access to much meat back home, so when they found meat plentiful in the States, the balls became big. Paired with a glass of vino, and well, *kisses fingers*. “This era also saw the beginnings of domestic Italian food production, including the founding of Chef Boyardee by the Italian immigrant Ettore Boiardi,” First We Feast reveals.
There was more to drink.
People also consumed a lot of other beverages. Maybe because certain beverages were illegal, people imbibed a whole lot of soft drinks and cocoa beverages at this time. However, History.org states that eating chocolate surprised drinking chocolate during the 1920s. In other words, people were not giving up on chocolate as a sweet treat.
Take a look at this retro orange soda fountain:
And here’s a look at some vintage hot cocoa.
According to Santa Barbara Chocolate, “Chocolate was exclusively a drink until the mid-19th century. At first, these chocolates had a gritty texture and were, therefore, unfavorable to the public. But in 1879, Rodolphe Lindt of Switzerland developed a machine that could process chocolate, rendering a smooth and velvety texture.” This made it more palatable for people to drink.
Loads of young people were drinking it.
The 1920s marked a lot of change.
In the end, the 1920s and ’30s were a time of great influx and massive change. With immigration, religion, music, women’s rights, civil rights, and culture coming together, food (and alcohol!) was at the forefront of that activity.
Would you eat codfish for breakfast? Chipped beef? How about some bathtub gin?