With this summer being the “Summer of Gatsby”, thanks to the release of the film starring Leonardo Dicaprio, I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the food and fare of the 1920s.
The Roaring Twenties ushered in a new culinary era in American cuisine. Up to this point in history, refrigeration and processed foods were just a dream on the horizon. But the 1920s introduced us to frozen meals; prohibition; pineapple upside down cake and Jell-O molds.
Oh, yes. They were exciting times, my friend.
World War I brought about new strides in convenience. Where before, housewives were stuck in the kitchen preparing meals from scratch, they were now offered a variety of convenience foods in the form of pre-packaged canned and frozen products.
Gas stoves and refrigeration contributed to the expediency. Orange juice could finally be consumed year round thanks to innovations in packaging and conveyance.
Of course, one thing the twenties are known for is the Prohibition Era. Though prohibition began as a “noble experiment” to solve the problem of crime and corruption, it backfired in the emergence of underground “speakeasies”, so named because of the need to “whisper” or “speak easy” to gain entry to the establishment, where booze flowed freely. Al Capone stands as an example of the illegal profitability to be gained from secret sales of alcohol during the Prohibition Era. He and his gang earned an estimated 60 million dollars a year during his reign of organized crime in Chicago. To put that figure in perspective, consider that in Chicago in 1925, a pound of bread cost nine cents. In 1926, a pound of round beef steak was 36 cents. For Capone, prohibition equaled profits.
It’s estimated that New York alone possessed over 100,000 speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties, leaving one to wonder if prohibition was at all effective in its time.
But while the twenties saw a surge of smuggled liquor over the borders of Canada and from overseas, alcohol was only a part of the 1920s food and beverage scene.
It’s no secret that I love cake. So I was pleased to learn that Betty Crocker literature in that day pronounced the age as “the beginning of the real cake era.” Cookbooks from the period advertise cake recipes in abundance: everything from pound cake to spice cake, angel and devil’s food, jam and nut cakes with fillings and frostings for every palate imaginable, be it citrus flavors, chocolates, mocha, caramel and everything in between. Sounds like cake-lover Heaven to me!
Cake wasn’t the only indulgence to hold the spotlight during this time, however. One of my favorite sweets, the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup, was created in the twenties, along with the Baby Ruth bar.
Also of note was the invention of frozen meals in 1920, thanks to Charles Birdseye, as well as General Motor’s introduction of the first Frigidaire home refrigerator in 1925.
So there you have it. The Jazz Age was a time of convenience, invention, and underground drinking.
Can’t forget the Jell-O. ;)
Check back next week for a Menus by the Book post with suggestions on what to serve for your twenties-themed or Gatsby book club gathering!
The Food Timeline
Recipes from the Twentieth Century from Fashionable Food by Sylvia Lovegren
Prohibition in the Roaring Twenties
Food, Groceries and Toiletries in the 1920s
Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era