- Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America by Ann Folino White
When the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933 food and hunger were understandably on the minds of millions of Americans. One of the AAA’s key elements—paying farmers to plow fields under and slaughter excess livestock in order to stabilize prices—sparked heated responses across the country. While the government engaged in demonstrations intended to display the strength of the country under the New Deal, impoverished sharecroppers, desperate dairy farmers, and frustrated consumers all created counter-demonstrations throughout the 1930s that centered on the roles of food in American life and the people’s right to it. Ann Folino White, in her period study Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America, closely examines several of the major demonstrations of the period in terms of their theatricality as the participants staged a “theater of food” (2). She further follows the competing protest narratives and how they intersected in national productions of the Federal Theatre Project Living Newspaper referenced in the title: Triple-A Plowed Under.
The introductory chapter places the AAA in historical context and outlines its goals, and how the actions proposed to help the farmers directly flew in the face of Americans’ perceptions of food and farming. At the root of the protests that White details in the book is the paradox of plentiful production wasted amid nationwide hunger. The key purpose of the study is, in her words, “to recount citizens’ responses to a sea change in the food system and so in their ways of life” (11). These responses encompass the theatricality of protest, as well as the theatre of the Living Newspaper, and White uses pages from the Triple-A Plowed Under manuscript to preface each of her chapters to emphasize the performance connections.
She proceeds to render vivid and impressively researched descriptions of the USDA exhibits at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. The expo was the government’s big opportunity to sell “the New Deal vision for agriculture” (the chapter’s title) to the general public, and the exhibitions used the power of performance and the symbolic value of particular foods, especially milk and beef, to stage, as White notes, “an experience of America restored to social and economic stability” (26). Embedded in these experiences of America were not-so-subtle distinctions between white male dominance and the subservience of nonwhites and women. The combination of images of milk as the ultimate nurturing food and beef as the source of all-American strength, along with the savvy use of common stereotypes to perform the imminent triumph over the Great Depression, proved a potent advertisement for the New Deal.
The first protest that White describes follows in the next chapter: the Wisconsin dairymen’s strike, which took place in May 1933. She positions the strike as “one of the first protests to question the federal government’s claim that the AAA safeguarded traditional American values” (63). As White succinctly delineates the major players of the milk strike, she emphasizes with persuasive scholarship the strategic use of milk and its symbolic connection with America and Americanism, particularly the dramatic staging of the dumping of milk in a highly public fashion. The strike also emerges as a series of performances, both successful and unsuccessful, of masculinity—the strength of the protesting farmers contrasted with the weak masculinity of the seemingly ineffective US government. Further, the protest sites attracted audiences; newspaper accounts avidly described the milk-dumping of the strikers and provided readers with the locations, prompting the spectacles of “[c]itizens in cars racing to protest sites” (110). Concerned and curious citizens seized the opportunity to experience the visceral and theatrical thrills of a wartime situation, replete with the [End Page 758] use of gas and spilled milk standing in for spilled blood—images that were not lost on a public with fresh memories of the Great...