When I first heard about this book it sounded like a good read. How have our eating habits changed? How did we go from eating foods that were grown locally and seasonally to processed convenience items? Where and when did this change? Was there a catalyst?
'A Square Meal' purported to look at the eating habits of people in the US and how they especially changed by the Great Depression. How the economics changed, how people had to adjust their eating habits, what it meant for food farms/suppliers/industries, and how that affects us today. I had been especially interested in how the US got our food guidelines and how the eating habits shifted to items that are pre-packaged and aimed towards convenience.
Sadly, that is not what this book is about at all. Initially it starts really well in discussing the eating habits of people. How labor intensive it could be for women (who typically did the food preparation). The rise and tracing of the path of food charities. How the sandwich used to be an item limited to picnics, saloons and afternoon tea but became a menu item of convenience and easier preparation.
Then, as other reviewers note, the book suddenly can't decide what it wants to be. We get less about the food habits (or about food in general) and instead look at the Great Depression. Some of it was very interesting: the psychological effect of the breadlines and the message it sent. But unfortunately it took away from what the book was supposed to be about (I had expected we'd be looking more at the eating habits themselves and the nutritional guidelines as mentioned above), plus the really awful writing.
I've read another book by Coe's before that looked at Chinese food in the US. The writing there was just excruciating and sometimes the text here is not that much better. My interest in the subject kept me going for awhile, but the interesting parts were few and far in between.
As others said, it's not really a "culinary history" of sorts, at least not in the way the book flap and marketing make it out out to be. It does have some information that I didn't know about and can be highly relevant (for example, the book talks about out of work coal miners and how that poverty/lack of work/unrest affected the coal miners, their families, and what Hoover did to get that segment back up to speed (highly relevant lessons that perhaps certain parties should learn) even if the effort only helped a small number of people and didn't fix the overall problems.
I was sad to find that I eagerly awaited this book but it really didn't match my expectations. Some people may really find it useful or more to their liking but they should be aware it's not quite what the cover/book flap says it is. Borrow from the library unless it's a resource you need.