Cooking Up History
The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Canada hard as the country relied on farm products and raw material exports to sustain the economy. The poor economic conditions significantly altered many families’ lives due to rising unemployment rates, forcing many women to find work to supplement the family income. At the same time, prices of goods increased dramatically, and certain foods became less available. Thus, during the Great Depression, the demand for foods that would provide proper nutrition for the body became a crucial concern for families. As such, milk came to be seen as an indispensable commodity during the 1930s and was highly sought after by families, particularly to nourish younger children.
Milk was seen as a life-sustaining necessity as it provided fat, sugar, proteins, and vitamins. While vitamins were a relatively new discovery in the 1930s, in general, people understood that even though you could not see the elements, they were vital for proper nutrition. Moreover, during this period, many dishes and foods were rather bland, so milk was added to to create creamy sauces, puddings, dressings, and desserts. Clearly, milk was considered an essential ingredient in the daily diet for its taste, texture, and nutrition.
However, unregulated prices caused disparities between the local producers and large corporations. The so-called "milk wars" consumed the early years of the Great Depression in Ontario as milk prices plummeted dramatically, forcing dairy farmers into financial ruin. To make matters worse, large-scale corporations and mass producers dominated the market, forcing smaller dairies and local producers to lower the price of their products to compete in this market. These smaller-scale producers barely broke even on their costs. As such, the Milk Control Board was established in 1934 to regulate prices. In theory, such regulations were helpful to smaller farmers. However, the resulting price inflations were destructive for the unemployed and families with male heads of household who were forced to work low-wage factory jobs during the 1930s. Given that milk was considered essential to building health children, mothers spoke out against these soaring prices and lack of availability for working families. In Toronto, this economic catastrophe was marked by people sleeping in parks and restrooms, going door-to-door to beg for food, and bread lines that were filled with thousands of men. Thus, it is not surprising that mothers were concerned that children's nutritional needs were not being met.
To supplement the demand for whole milk, condensed milk was viewed as an adequate product replacement. At the same time, around the country, debates about sanitary conditions and the need for a clean, healthy milk product were happening. Many Canadians lobbied for mandatory pasteurization of milk products while others issued grievances about losing their freedom to choose what products they bought. As such, condensed milk came to be seen as a possible and safe option for families when milk prices soared or supplies were limited. 100 Glorified Recipes demonstrates that condensed milk was considered to be just as nutritious as whole milk because nothing was taken out of the milk to create the product except water, and thus there was no nutrient loss.
The condensed milk industry had boomed in the earlier part of the 20th century, specifically during the First World War, as soldiers relied on canned and packaged foods to survive on the front lines. As such, in Canada and the United States, condensed milk became very popular and this continued into the Great Depression. Many rural Canadians became reliant on condensed milk as supplies of fresh milk were often inadequate in some communities. Canned milk was also relied upon in urban centres, especially during the winter months when milk production was significantly reduced. While fresh milk was desired, families often kept cans of condensed milk in the pantry for use during times of shortage. By the 1920s, many households in North America accepted use of canned foods as they were portable and easy to include in activities such as picknicking or camping. Thus, by the time of the Great Depression, families had become accustomed to relying on packaged foods rather than just fresh and local goods.
100 Glorified Recipes shows the convenience of condensed milk as a cooking resource because it could be adapted for use in so many recipes. Moreover, condensed milk could be used as a replacement for milk in recipes that required it. The cookbook notes that the product could be used to replace milk in a recipe if an equal amount of water was added, which would effectively replicate the texture of fresh milk. Such advice would have helped houswives during the Great Depression when milk prices were unstable and unaffordable. Ultimately, condensed milk served an essential role in the economy of the Great Depression, providing families with a healthy food source that could be stored and used when needed, while at the same time adding a tasty element to several recipes.