December 2017

The Business of Holiday Meals

Corporate cookbooks show not only how prior generations of cooks approached the holiday meal, but also how it was shaped by the forces of urban capitalism that continue to inform our holiday tastes and desires.

by Pamela Monaco

November arrives and our thoughts turn to food. Whether preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with friends or family, Americans likely turn to family traditions in meal preparation. Our choice to make a pumpkin pie, a pecan pie, or a mincemeat pie is certainly shaped by personal choice, but our frame of reference has been created by tradition—a tradition we likely associate with a long family practice. We are unlikely to consider that promotional materials from an insurance company, a utility company, or a large appliance manufacturer may have influenced the choices we make today.

Until recently, corporate or company cookbooks were means for businesses not only to promote their goods or services, but also to suggest an interest in the well-being of their customers or clients. As our society has shifted from the mass production of printed materials to more digital communication and away from the practices of the family meal, corporate cookbooks are on the wane. As historical documents, particularly if viewed over a period of time, corporate cookbooks provide insight into our culture, our values, and our history, even our holiday eating patterns. They show not only how prior generations of cooks approached the holiday meal, but also how it was shaped by the forces of urban capitalism that continue to inform our holiday tastes and desires.

We are unlikely to consider that promotional materials from an insurance company, a utility company, or a large appliance manufacturer may have influenced the choices we make today.

Companies as diverse as Sears, Roebuck and Company, Delta Airlines, and Metropolitan Life published cookbooks to promote the value of the electric home or to make new places seem accessible through food. A challenge in studying this genre is the preservation of these cookbooks. As gifts from businesses, these books were not necessarily kept and preserved, nor handed down to a next generation. Unless the company was very large and had an archivist, the company, if still in existence, may not have kept copies over the years. Fortunately, some archives, such as the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection at Michigan State University, and the personal collections of individuals have preserved and kept this ephemera. Although these books may not have been treasures at the time, they certainly are now. As Kyri Claflin writes, “Compilation of recipes represents a genre of literature with a history.”[1]

msuspcsbs_apth_apthegreat3800205 (1)
The 1933 A&P holiday menu discussed below. Courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.

The advent of company cookbooks parallels several movements in our country. By the late 1800s, urban areas were growing, as industrialization increased and more people moved to cities to find work.[2] Cities were becoming overcrowded, and concerns about malnutrion and illness related to inadequate nutrition permeated. People were living differently in these cities, and men and women often found themselves in new roles both within and outside the family. Rural life also changed. The Merrill Act of 1862 had established land grant colleges that admitted women. These colleges, noted for their agricultural programs dedicated to helping farmers succeed through the understanding of the science behind farming, established home economics departments to educate women to assist in running the farm and running the household.

The founding of the American Home Economics Association in 1909—now the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences (AAFCS)—by the first female graduate of MIT, Ellen Richards, brought a scientific authority to the efficient running of a home. The two populations undergoing change, those learning to live in more urban environments, and those responsible for the efficient running of increasingly large farms, created opportunities for companies to promote new kitchen appliances, approaches to cooking, and the running of a household. These prescriptive and didactic cookbooks provided advice not only about how to cook and run a kitchen, but also about how to save time, “keep up with the Joneses,” and demonstrate worldly sophistication while also being good stewards of resources. As the percentage of women entering the workforce increased, advice on efficiency proved valuable.[3]

As society became more industrialized, the voice of authority replaced the voice of experience. Even if a mother lived around the block and could provide guidance about how to stuff a turkey and what to stuff it with, appliances and products within the home were rapidly changing. The old recipe box with scant instructions about using a hot surface and indicating an imprecise amount of an ingredient were inadequate when the new kitchen relied on electric ranges and standardized measures. The home economics departments replicated the industry movement in America with its reliance on the science of production, or Taylorism, that brought time and motion study to the office and assembly lines to the factory. Home economists stressed the values of economics, safety, nutrition, and cleanliness. Being good stewards of the house provided greater time to enjoy family, leisure time, or to combine work outside the home with domestic duties. Many of these cookbooks stress the credentials of the spokesperson and the test kitchens that eliminated guesswork and promised replicable success when following the recipes. After all, if you could not trust the companies that supplied the utilities that allowed one to cook at home, whom could one trust?

As society became more industrialized, the voice of authority replaced the voice of experience.

Within the genre of corporate cookbooks exist some that include menus of special foods for the holiday. An analysis of holiday menus from a cookbook from 1933 suggests the ways these little books can serve as important documents that provide insight into American culture and values. In The Handbook of Food Research, Kyri Claflin demonstrates the many ways to interrogate these corporate cookbooks to extract historical insights from the time and place of publication. This essay illustrates the meaty value of these corporate cookbooks by focusing on one example from one company during the Great Depression.

In 1933, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, commonly known as A&P, became the first grocery store chain in the US. Founded in 1859 in New York City as a tea company, by 1930 A&P was the world’s largest retailer, with over $2.9 billion in sales through 16,000 stores reaching coast to coast. Just as the stores transformed how America shopped for food, particularly as it put out of business small local grocery stores, A&P shaped how and what we eat, not only through what it carried in the stores, but also how it marketed expectations for what to eat for what occasion. By 1930, A&P found its security in the grocery industry challenged by the first supermarkets—stores that not only provided choice and better prices but eliminated the need for butcher shops or bakeries. The publication of its little cookbook reaffirmed its role as the trusted grocer.

Like many companies, A&P issued cooking “leaflets” or brochures. Natalie Cooke and Mary Braile have refined the definition of different forms of corporate ephemera, and the A&P product seems a brochure: less than 50 pages and not bound.[4] A&P distributed through its grocery stores each week this brochure called, “A & P Menus Week Of…Meal Plans To Fit The Pocketbook.” Four pages each, the single-fold, two-panel leaflets included a three-hole punch on the left margin, suggesting that the company intended the consumer to collect and save each week’s offering in a binder of some sort.

These publications fit both senses of the pocketbook: small enough to slip into a lady’s handbag, and filled with menus to meet the economic restraints on families during the Great Depression. Each week’s edition included a week’s worth of menus for three meals a day for three different budgets for a family of four: those who could spend $8-$9, $11-$13, or $16-$18 per week.[5] Each brochure included approximately a dozen numbered recipes plus additional recipes under headings such as “Meat Dishes Men Like” or “Cooking with Children.” Advertisements and helpful hints, such as how to prepare a meal with a particular product, were included. Under the weekly title announcing the date, the brochure announced that menus were “prepared and tested by the A&P Kitchen Staff.”

A 1934 A&P coffee advertisement for a Montreal branch. Courtesy of flickr.

In 1933, the December 18 edition of the weekly menu included Christmas menus. The specialness of this brochure was announced through its masthead. As with the Thanksgiving edition, which also included a supplement, the type font changed from the usual to a gothic font, darker and bolder, with a seated monarch, bearing a resemblance to King Henry VIII, embedded in the middle of the “A&P Menus for the Week of Dec. 18.” This kingly figure is all smiles as he sits in front of what appears a mound of meat, a serving fork clutched in one hand and a carving knife in the other. The rest of the front page includes a greeting from “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company,” reminding the reader that since 1859 the company has “catered to Christmas appetites” and professing pride that the company has “helped to place many foods, formerly the luxuries of the wealthy, within reach of everybody’s purse.”

The rest of the front page features what appears to be an aspirational menu for Christmas dinner—what diners ought to want—for the rest of the brochure includes menus for the three budgets. However, unlike in other “menus for the week,” which include recipes drawn from all three budget menus, this Christmas issue only provides recipes for dishes included in the aspirational menu. A&P provided subtle encouragement to readers to consider this menu above others for the Christmas meal. Lite pillar candles frame this special menu. The multicourse “1933 Special Christmas Dinner” included choices: clam juice cocktail with olive and anchovy canapé or stuffed celery; crudités and consume; roast turkey with pecan stuffing and gravy or a roast goose with apple stuffing and gravy; either mashed potatoes or browned sweet potatoes; green peas or glazed onions; an asparagus tip salad or avocado salad; rolls, and concluding with plum pudding with sweet lemon hollandaise or vanilla ice cream with pineapple preserves.

None of these items appeared on the budget menus with the exception of the roast turkey and the plum pudding, appearing on both the $16-$18 menu and the $11-$13 menu. In fact, these latter menus are quite similar. Although both include turkey and gravy, the stuffing is different: the higher budget menu feature a chestnut stuffing, and oyster stuffing for the more restricted budget. Today, we might wonder why the apple stuffing was part of the “aspirational” menu, and oysters with the middle range menu. During the Depression, oysters were plentiful and cheap; those near the water often ate them on a weekly basis.[6] Apples were decidedly cheap; unemployed men sold them on the street, people in rural areas would often have them stored, and grocery stores like A&P sold them for pennies. A bark fungus of 1904 devastated the chestnut crop, hitting particularly hard during the Depression. Referred to as a cradle-to-grave crop because of its many uses, the chestnut devastation resulted in the loss of over 30 million acres. Chestnut stuffing would have suggested either the economic security of the family or a splurge for that meal.

A&P responded quickly yet very quietly to the availability of alcohol for cooking, and suggested hard sauce for two of the four menus. A&P was cautiously bold.

Also on this highest budget menu were “honied” grapefruit, rice, cranberries, green lima beans, tomato aspic, rolls, and plum pudding with hard sauce. On December 5, 1933, Congress ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing the prohibition on alcohol. The mention of hard sauce appears on page 2 of the four-page brochure, and no recipe for hard sauce is included. Although a mulled grape juice and spiced cider jelly recipe appear, neither include any alcohol. A&P responded quickly yet very quietly to the availability of alcohol for cooking, and suggested hard sauce for two of the four menus. A&P was cautiously bold. Both menus include a green vegetable and tomato aspic; the higher budget menu includes two fruits, grapefruit and cranberries, and the middle budget only includes cranberry juice. More significant is the inclusion of rice on the more generous budget menu. Potatoes appear on all other menus, including the aspirational menu, and potatoes were plentiful and cheap during the Depression. Rice would have been a pricier

An advertisement for A&Ps Chicken of Tomorrow contest, initiated in the mid-1940s. Courtesy of Flashbak.

departure from the more common starch of potatoes.[7] Some families could have grown and stored potatoes, but not so for rice. Grocers typically sold potatoes for approximately a penny a pound; plain rice sold for three-cents a pound.[8]

The $8-$9 menu is starkly different. No appetizer or crudité of any sort is included, and a “mock duck” (a shoulder of veal) replaces the turkey. Boiled onions replace a green vegetable, cranberry sauce remains, and mashed potatoes, bread, celery and radishes, and a fruit pudding round out the meal. Although we consider veal an expensive meat today, during the Depression veal was more affordable that poultry. Veal was often cut from the bulls born from milking cows that were not worth feeding and raising. Chickens were not the uniform birds we know today. The large birds, able to feed a family, were the tough “fowl” birds. A tender turkey to feed a family would have been a luxury. It was not until the 1940s that poultry became a cheap meat, thanks to a contest sponsored by A&P to produce big, uniform, and cheaply raised chickens, but that is another story. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, mock meat substitutes were common, with recipes for mock chicken salad made from cubed pork and mock chicken drumstick made from veal or pork on skewers. Recipes for mock duck, made from veal, date to the late 19th century [9]

Although A&P declared bankruptcy and went out of business in 2015, its influence on consumer habits is still felt in numerous ways. The study of their “weekly menus” demonstrates that the choices people made were shaped by the prescriptive suggestions from corporate America. The grocery established its authority to provide budget guidance and menu preparation through its own success and size, and by establishing its scientific approach to this advice, learned through decades of experience and tested in the official kitchens of the company. Using a masthead illustration of one of the reputed glutton kings of England during a time of widespread hunger and deprivation suggests a message of better times to come and a fondness for remembering the past legends of plenty. Providing an aspirational menu, and only including recipes for that menu, encouraged readers to make sacrifices in other meals throughout the weeks to bring to the table a feast fit for a king, if only by including a single dish. Studying corporate cookbooks through the decades, one gains valuable insights into how culture, values, and lifestyles were changing in the early 1930s, and the ways in which corporations both reflected and influenced these changes—even if rice and plum pudding do not grace most American Christmas meals. The ephemera cookbook has proven to be anything but.


Pamela Monaco teaches courses at the undergraduate and graduate level in American literature, theatre, and culture. Of particular interest is an understanding of American culture through a study of foodways. She earned her Ph.D. from Catholic University in English.

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[1]Kyri Claflin., “Representations of Food Production and Consumption: Cookbooks as Historical Source.” In Handbook of Food Research, ed. Anne Murcott, Warren Belasco, and Peter Jackson. (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 110.

[2]According to US Census Data, by 1930, the US population living in urban areas had increased by 10% in 20 years, to 56% of the total population.

[3] By 1930, eleven million women, or 24%, were employed outside the home.

[4] Natalie Cook, “Cookbooklets and Canadian Kitchens,” Material Culture Review 70 (Fall 2009): 24.

[5] It is important to note that by 1933 approximately 25% of the working population in the US was unemployed. Many Americans would not have even this modest budget for food and would rely on soup kitchens and less structured forms of meals.

[6] The Kitchen Window. “Consider the Chesapeake Bay Oyster.” Kendra Bailey Morris. National Public Radio, November 21, 2017.

[7] At this time, US rice production had declined and the US produced only half of what it consumed.

[8] Even today rice is approximately twice as expensive as potatoes for the consumer. “Food Prices in Chicago, IL.” Numbeo, last modified December 2017,

[9]Andrew Simon, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: 3-Volume Set, vol.2. 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 598.



The American Chestnut. The American Chestnut Foundation.

A & P Menus Week Of…Meal Plans To Fit The Pocketbook [1933]. The Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Collection, MSS 314, Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. Available at

Barile, Mary. 1994. Cookbooks Worth Collecting, The History and Lore of Notable Cookbooks, with Complete Bibliographic Listings and Up-to-date Values. Radner, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company.

Claflin, Kyri L. 2013. “Representations of Food Production and Consumption: Cookbooks as Historical Sources.” Handbook of Food Research. Eds. Anne Murcott, Warren Belasco, and Peter Jackson. London: Bloomsbury.

Cooke, Nathalie. 2009. “Cookbooklets and Canadian Kitchens.” Material Culture Review 70 (Fall 2009): 22-33.

“Food Prices in Chicago, IL.” 2017.  Numbeo. December 2017.

Morris, Kendra Bailey. 2017.  “Consider the Chesapeake Bay Oyster.” The Kitchen Window. National Public Radio. November 21, 2017. Radio broadcast. Transcript downloaded November 30, 2017

Schatzker, Mark. 2015. The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Simon, Andrew. 2013.  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: 3-Volume Set. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford UP.

US Census Bureau. 1995.  Urban and Rural Populations: 1900-1990. Oct. 1995.

US Department of Labor. 2006. 100 Years of US Consumer Spending: Data for the Nation, New York City, and Boston. Report 991. May 2006.

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