The Great Depression was a time of scarcity-induced innovation: families had to do without many household staples and used their resourcefulness to come up with alternatives made from goods that were more readily available. From dying their legs with tea in lieu of stockings to mending shoes with cardboard, the families of the Great Depression used what they had to make up for shortages of practically every food and good.
Farms in the 1930s were diversified, growing a variety of crops in the fields, vegetables in the garden and fruit in the orchard. Small farms usually raised chickens, eggs, hogs, and cattle, as well as keeping horses and mules for work, and sometimes sheep for wool and meat. Some farmers kept bees and harvested the honey. Women baked their own bread.
During the Depression, this self-sufficiency carried over into their social life. One-dish suppers and church potlucks were important ways to have fun and share food. On radio and in women’s magazines, home economists taught women how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast or waffles. Chili, macaroni and cheese, soups, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular meals.
In the 70 or more years since the Great Depression, a lot has changed on the farms of rural America. All of these changes have resulted in farms that usually specialize in only one main crop. Today, entire regions have become “monocultures.”
Life was different in the 1930s. Person after person – like Millie Opitz (left) – will tell you that they never went hungry despite the fact that they never had much money. And Helen Bolton (right) can still quickly list all of the tasks she had to do to keep food on the table.
Old-time gardeners were ahead of their time! Their ideas for wildflower gardens, children’s gardens, organic pest controls, decorating with houseplants, healing with herbs, and more are at the forefront of modern gardening trends. Take a look back to the future of gardening with this incredible collection of gardening advice from successful 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century gardeners.
Early gardeners knew what they were doing–they had to, since they depended on their plants for food, medicine, home decorations, and recreation! Whether you’re growing vegetables, flowers, herbs, fruits, trees, shrubs, wildflowers, houseplants, or lawn grass, these old-time tips will help you get the most out of your plantings. Do you want a lusher lawn? How about more beautiful flowerbeds or hints for making your yard look bigger? You’ll find all that and more in Old Time Wisdom.
The Apetz brothers hunted rabbits to put a more meat on the dinner table. Delbert Apetz says, “We had a brooder house [for chickens]. My uncle and dad, they’d go out rabbit hunting (now this is in the winter time). Be rabbits hanging there, dressed all the way through that and any time you wanted something to eat you’d cut the string on the rabbit and bring it in the house, fry it or cook it and make soup or whatever you want. We ate a lotta, lotta rabbits. But that’s what we had to eat.” Still, it was a constant work to put food on the table, and sometimes the food was covered with dust when the wind blew dust through the cracks in the house.
Nowhere was Great Depression ingenuity—and desperation–more apparent than in the average American kitchen. Spurred on by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who encouraged families to save money and resources by practicing savvier home economics, the Great Depression produced some truly disgusting food combinations. Not all the dishes that came from this time were short-lived, however; mega food companies like Kraft used the new normal as a platform to make their products, like mac ‘n cheese, a household staple for generations to come.
Let’s bust one Great Depression myth right off the bat, courtesy of Megan McArdle: “even at the height of the Depression, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed, most people were not on relief, and most were not suffering malnutrition.” Even if it wasn’t all hobos sharing beans on a garbage can lid, the American diet during the Great Depression did change dramatically, thanks to the rise of the refrigerator, and, of course, the prioritization of thrift.
So what did people eat during the Depression? The Bureau of Home Economics encouraged a lot of substitution, leading to some pretty disgusting concoctions. The government also pushed bland foods on purpose because “they wanted to force people to get jobs and to earn enough money to buy spices and seasonings.” Refrigeration meant leftovers, so food during the Great Depression was prepared to last (think casseroles and loaves). Because America didn’t have a “national conscious or memory of hunger” at the time, the Depression not only changed attitudes toward food but also famously affected a lot of people’s behavior for the rest of their lives (just ask anyone with parents or grandparents that lived through it). The list below features some of the stranger foods people ate to get through the Great Depression and how they changed the American diet.
Although most of the dishes on this list aren’t for the faint of heart—or the weak of stomach—these dishes represent the true American spirit of resiliency and, for better or worse, creativity.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t just going to sit back and let this whole “Great Depression” nonsense keep her country down. The famous feminist was an early supporter/patron saint of the home economics movement, and she practiced what she preached: food served in the White House during the Depression was famously the dreariest in history. Poor FDR had to eat—at least when the press and/or guests were around—denture-friendly fare such as “deviled eggs served in a tomato sauce with a side of mashed potatoes” with “prune whip” (pudding) for dessert. The humble and much-maligned prune, along with its ragtag dried fruit cousins, was a common substitute during the Depression for pricey fresh fruit.
1 c. oil
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 c. buttermilk
1 c. cooked prunes, cut in sm. pieces
1 c. chopped nuts
Beat together oil, sugar and eggs, one at a time. Then sift together flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda and salt. Mix with buttermilk, prunes, and nuts. Bake in 9 x 14 inch pan, 45-60 minutes at 300 degrees.
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. butter
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. white Karo syrup
Boil together 10 minutes. Take from stove and add 1 teaspoon vanilla.
‘Surreal’ Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions Kept Things Super-Cheap
Food historians Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman, authors of A Square Meal, prepared peanut-butter-stuffed baked onions using a Depression-era cookbook and lived to tell the tale to the New York Times. How did the dish turn out? “It was not a popular addition to the dinner table,” Coe said. Ziegelman called the experience “surreal,” noting sagely that “peanut butter has nothing to say to a baked onion.”
Who’s to blame for this unholy alliance of peanut butter and baked onion, this wretched PB&BO? The well-intended but seemingly palateless Bureau of Home Economics, whose professional home economists published recipes and articles in our fine nation’s newspapers and magazines urging housewives to become “budgeteers” and serve this glop to their families.
Mock Apple Pie Using Ritz Crackers
This unusual treat is known today as a Depression-era favorite. The Ritz Mock Apple Pie is an apple-free apple pie that people would imagine was the real thing when they were eating it.
The recipe involved 36 Ritz crackers, 2 cups of water, 2 cups of sugar, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, the grated rind of one lemon, butter and cinnamon.
Apparently the sugar, cinnamon, butter and lemon juice came together along with the buttery taste and unique texture of the Ritz crackers to convince your senses that you were actually eating apple pie. Surprsingly. There are some people who prepare and eat this concoction even today. Of course, it does sound much better than peanut butter and onion.
Boiled Spaghetti with Carrots and White Sauce
Another Depression-era meal that was thought up by the First Lady, while she did promote some foul dishes in her efforts to promote good home economics, this dish may have inspired future spaghetti favorites. The casserole was made from spaghetti, boiled carrots, and a simple white sauce made from milk, flour, salt, and butter.
The first step was to cook the spaghetti for 25 minutes so that they are mushy and pair nicely with the already mushy boiled carrots. The white sauce was poured over the top of the mush making it a great nutritious dinner for those who could stomach it.
3/4th cup pasta (I used organic whole wheat pasta)
4-5 cloves of garlic (grated)
3/4th cup milk
1 cube of cheese (grated)
1 tbsp butter
Pinch of black pepper powder
Salt to taste
Peel carrot, cut it in small pieces, and then steam the pieces. Instead of steaming, you can cook in a pressure cooker for about 7-8 minutes (2 whistles).
Cook pasta as per the instructions on its packet. (I used Fabindia’s curvi rigati pasta.)
Heat a pan, add butter, and then add grated garlic.
Sauté for 15-20 seconds and then add milk. (If you want to make a thick sauce then add 2 tsp wheat flour, sauté it for a couple of minutes and then add milk.)
Simmer for half a minute, and then add grated cheese and stir.
Simmer till the mixture thickens a bit (15-20 seconds), add pepper powder and steamed carrot, and mix properly. (You can also add dried herbs like oregano and basil in addition to black pepper powder. Devansh manages to filter out the dry herbs while chewing so I avoid putting them in his pasta.)
Add cooked pasta and mix properly.
Add salt, mix properly, and then turn off heat. (Butter and cheese both contain salt so go easy on the salt.)
You can pressure cook 4-5 carrots and freeze the excess for future use. This is a real time saver when you want to make something like Sweet Potato, Carrot, and Semolina Porridge. You can also add this cooked carrot to sabzis or gravies. Add it when the sabzi is almost cooked as you don’t want to overcook the carrots as it would lead to loss of nutrients.
Hooray for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
Even though the Great Depression gets a pretty bad rap as far as food goes, it did provide us with a staple that is still enjoyed today and is very delicious, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner. In 1937, Kraft heard about a salesman for the Tenderoni Macaroni company of St. Louis going rogue and selling his noodles with packets of Kraft grated cheese attached. They hired the now-forgotten national hero to promote the concept and started selling it to cash-strapped Americans at the low, low price of 19 cents for four servings.
How To Make Creamy Macaroni and Cheese on the Stove
Serves 4 to 6
What You Need
1 pound dried short pasta
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% milk, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 to 3 cups shredded cheese, such as cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Colby
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon powdered mustard
Optional extras (cook before adding): Ham, bacon, onions, peas, mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower
Measuring cups and spoons
Colander or strainer
Large serving bowl
Cook the pasta. Bring about 4 quarts of salted water to a boil over high heat in a large pot. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Warm the milk. Place 1 cup of the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Meanwhile, place the remaining 1/2 cup of milk and flour in a small bowl and whisk together until there are no lumps. When you just start to see whisps of steam rising from the warming milk, whisk in the milk-and-flour mixture. Continue whisking gently until the milk thickens slightly to the consistency of heavy cream, 3 to 4 minutes.
Make the cheese sauce. Turn the heat to low and begin mixing handfuls of cheese into the milk. Stir in the salt and mustard. Stir until all the cheese has melted and the sauce is creamy. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Remove the sauce from the heat.
Combine the pasta and cheese sauce. Place the pasta and 1/2 of the cheese sauce in a large serving bowl. Stir to coat the pasta evenly. Add the remaining sauce and any extra add-ins and stir to combine. If you’d like a looser sauce, add up to another 1/4 cup milk if desired. Serve the mac and cheese immediately while still warm.
Baked mac and cheese: If you have a little extra time, you can bake the macaroni and cheese to give it a golden crust. Pour the prepared mac and cheese into a casserole dish, cover with a lid or foil, and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and a few pats of butter, and bake uncovered for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the top is golden and the interior is bubbly.
Storage: Leftovers will keep for up to 1 week and can be reheated in the microwave. If the sauce is a little dry after reheating, mix in a splash of milk to make it creamy again.
Vinegar Cobbler Faked Fruit Flavor
Vinegar Cobbler belongs to a class of culinary freaks known as the “Desperation Pies,” which sounds like a bad joke from a Thanksgiving-themed Cathy comic but is actually what food historians and bakers call cheap-ass fruitless pies that crept dreadfully into the spotlight during the Great Depression (see also the Ritz Mock Apple Pie). Instead of chunks of fresh apples, you use apple cider vinegar to fake the acidic taste on a budget. Believe it or not, in 2015, James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd started serving Vinegar Cobbler at his Houston restaurant, Underbelly. It reportedly tastes like a custard made from salt and vinegar chips, a rare dessert that “leaves the roof of your mouth tingling.”
VINEGAR COBBLER FILLING
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
2 c. sugar
3 c. water
1/4 t. nutmeg
Mulligan’s Stew Was Seasoned with Tobacco
This one isn’t your ordinary Great Depression dish: this is straight-up hobo food. Mulligan’s Stew, according to Errol Lincoln Uys, author of Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression, is made from (stolen) onions, corn, and potatoes, added to a stew of mixed foraged greens, “bits and pieces” of meat, and a handful of navy beans likely “carried in a pocket for a month.” The secret ingredient? A “a smattering of Bull Durham tobacco and lint,” presumably either to enrich the broth or to make your weak-gutted hobo companions nauseated so you could more easily steal their bindles.
“Milkorno” Mixed Milk and Corn for an Unlikely Superfood
Mad scientists at Cornell University in 1933 invented a gruel called Milkorno, a mix of powdered skim milk, corn meal, and salt, to help families in need “stretch budgets without sacrificing nourishment,” promising “Meals For a Family of 5 For $5 a Week.” The name comes from combining “milk” and “corn” with the surprised “Oh!” that guests of Eleanor Roosevelt probably made when she explained what she tricked them into eating at the White House later that same year.
There were also Milkorno’s step-siblings Milkwheato and Milkoato. Milkwheato, in particular, did big business: the government purchased 25 million pounds of the dystopian dust for use in hunger relief efforts. When boiled, every member of the Milkorno family turns into porridge, which makes you wonder what the Bureau of Home Economics was thinking when it suggested soggy Milkorno as a substitute for noodles in Chinese chop suey.
Milkorno Polenta with Tomato Sauce:
1 1/2 cups cooked Milkorno.*
1/4 cup grated cheese
1 cup tomato sauce
Place spoonfuls of hot Milkorno on a platter. Pour hot tomato sauce over them, and sprinkle with grated cheese.
*To make a batch of Milkorno, mix 2 parts corn meal with 1 part powdered skim milk. For the polenta recipe, mix 1 cup of corn meal with a 1/2 cup of powdered skim milk and 3 to 4 cups of water in a sauce pan and bring to a boil.
There Were Loaves Galore
Food historians say that loaves were “very popular” during the Great Depression because they “were made from an ingredient and a cheap thing that stretches the ingredient out.” There was liver loaf, lima bean loaf, peanut loaf, and, as a “sparingly apportioned luxury,” actual meatloaf. Lima bean loaf allegedly tastes a “bit like falafel” but is best with “lots of highly seasoned gravy.” Even actual meat loaf was relatively affordable when it was “padded out” with “bread and crackers, quick-cooking oats, tapioca, breakfast cereal, and powdered sauce mixes.” Meanwhile, like today, “bouillon, canned soup, and Heinz ketchup … added flavor and moistness at small cost.”
Dandelion Salad Was Sourced from Yards and Parks
Ah, the humble and tenacious dandelion. How city dwellers hate it, engaging in futile yearly battles to eradicate it from their lawns and seemingly every crack in the pavement. They’re conditioned to as many municipal bylaws have rules against weedy yards and nosey neighbours are often all too keen to call in the bylaw officer if they think your yard doesn’t meet the “standard” of the neighbourhood. There is no bylaw officer in my small town to enforce the rules, so I let my dandelions grow! When I bought my house, the previous caretaker didn’t apologize for the dandelions, he simply shrugged and said “I see wine, not weeds”. When I visit the local farmers’ markets in my rural area the grannies have dandelion flower syrup and jelly proudly displayed on their tables. It’s rural wisdom, don’t fight your weeds — eat them!
EDIBLE RECIPE ROUND UP
Dandelion flower petals are a pain to harvest for cooking with as you have to process them as soon as they are picked and then painstakingly remove the petals from the bitter green base to make truly delicious items with them, but it’s worth it! The flowers can’t be stored in the fridge until you are ready, so plan ahead and book a whole day dedicated to harvesting and cooking with the petals. Wear rubber/latex gloves (easily found at a pharmacy) or you will have yellow hands for a week! Depending on the amount of petals you end up with, you can make dandelion lemonade, dandelion wine, dandelion syrup, dandelion jelly, or baked goods like shortbread cookies, muffins, cakes…
Dandelion flower fritters are a tasty start to cooking with dandelions and are fun to make with kids. They can be made sweet and drizzled with honey or made savoury and dipped in a homemade garlic-herb mayo. Respected herbalist Rosalee de la Forêt has great foraging instructions and one of the best dandelion flower fritter recipes I’ve found over at Learning Herbs. The next best fritter recipe I’ve found is not surprisingly from Martha Stewart. If you’re like me and can’t have corn, try this equally delicious recipe from Gather Victoria.
There’s no such thing as too many fritter recipes. If Indian food is your jam, try these Dandelion Bhajis and Wild Garlic Raita from Taste of the Wild or add a good amount of chopped dandelion greens to a good pakora recipe like this one from Mint Green Apron: Garden Greens Pakoras.
Dandelion greens are always at hand to cook with, but will be the least bitter in the spring. One of the most basic ways to enjoy them is to sautee them with onion, garlic, and bacon and finish them with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. They make a great side dish for dinner. The other simplest way to utilize them is in egg recipes. I like to sautee them with mushrooms, garlic, and bacon and add them to a baked omelette or breakfast hash with potatoes and a fried egg, but this mini crustless quiche recipe from Danielle of Gather is also delicious: Dandelion & Calendula Breakfast Egg Cups. Also, do I need to say it? Make pesto! What about the stems? Yes, you can eat them too! Here’s a tempting recipe for Fermented Dandelion Stems that any foodie would appreciate.
BAKED MUSHROOMS STUFFED WITH DANDELION GREENS
2 dozen button mushroom caps, remove stems and dice just the stems
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
5 slices of bacon, cooked and chopped
1 big bunch of dandelion greens, washed and chopped
1 small log of goat cheese
1/2 cup shredded aged white cheddar
Salt and pepper to taste
Sautee the onions in the remaining bacon fat until they are translucent and then add the diced mushroom stems, garlic and dandelion greens. Cook until the greens wilt (they will reduce significantly in size like cooking spinach so chop more greens than you think you’ll need). Put the mixture in a bowl and add the chopped bacon and the goat cheese. Mix until well combined.
Rub olive oil on each mushroom cap and place on a baking sheet. Using a spoon, stuff the goat cheese and dandelion mixture into the cavity of each mushroom. Overfill if you need to. Sprinkle a little grated aged cheddar on top of each one and place in the oven preheated to 375 F for 20 minutes, or until the mushrooms are fully cooked. Cool for 10 minutes and devour!
Dandelion roots are useful for more than just tea and tinctures! You can eat them like carrots, but keep in mind they can get woody if too old so stick to harvesting 1-3 year old roots for eating as a root vegetable. They aren’t as woody as burdock root which makes them more enjoyable. Here are good instructions from Food Storage & Survival on how to harvest, clean, and cook dandelion roots as a vegetable. Once you’ve got the skins off, you can use them as you would any root vegetable; served with just butter and salt or turned into fritters, latkes, gratins, added to soups and stews, or mashed and mixed with other veggies. You can be sweet too! Here’s a clever, chocolaty recipe using the whole processed dandelion roots to make brownies: Dandelion Root Fudge Brownies with Dark Chocolate Chips.
Roasted dandelion roots are made using the dried root and so can be made with your own wild harvested roots or from store bought dried roots that have already been cut and sifted into small pieces. It’s a good medicinal tea as a diuretic, but also a tasty coffee or tea substitute. I can’t have caffeine so I rely on roasted dandelion root as a tea staple. I use it as the base for chai, for summer iced teas, as an early grey clone with fresh ginger and lemon slices, and for a treat I will steep it for 15-20 minutes with a crushed cinnamon stick and a few cardamon pods and then add milk and honey. As a general rule, steep your herbal teas for 15-30 minutes for full flavour as the 3-5 minutes for green and black tea will simply not cut it! Roasted dandelion root pairs amazingly well with fresh rose petals so when they are in season I make roasted dandelion root and rose petal tea and again serve it with milk and honey.
DANDELION MEDICINE ROUND UP
With the leaves and the roots being potently medicinal, dandelion can be made into a good variety of herbal medicines and also eaten as food for its medicinal benefits. For full overviews of the many uses and benefits of dandelion within herbal medicine see Wellness Mama’s article on Dandelion Uses & Benefits and for an overview written by a medical practitioner complete with precautions and possible interactions with other medicines see the Dandelion Monograph by The University of Maryland Medical Center.
Simple medicinal food recipes to make include Dandelion Root Infused Honey and Dandelion Vinegar.
When it comes to DIY herbal medicine, Agatha over at The Herbal Academy teaches us How to Use Dandelion Greens for a Healthy Liver, Learning Herbs teaches How to Harvest Dandelion Root and Make Roasted Dandelion Tea at home, Kathleen Roberts shows us how to properly use dried Dandelion Greens for Tea, and Nelle from Mama’s Homestead gives instructions for making herbal tea from fresh or dried dandelion greens as well as fresh dandelion flowers. You can use dandelion externally too! The Nerdy Farm Wife has a good recipe for Dandelion Salve and Herbalist Lisa Rose recommends a Dandelion Flower Massage Oil.
For alcohol extract instructions Colleen from the great Grow Forage Cook Ferment blog shares a great and simple recipe for Dandelion Root Bitters, Herbs & Owls teaches How to Make Fresh Dandelion Tincture with the whole plant (you can include the flowers too!)
Gelatin Was a Cutting-Edge Food
Gelatin was a cheap, cutting-edge protein source in the 1930s, meaning it made its way into a lot of Depression-era cookbooks. Let’s take corned beef luncheon salad, for example. It’s a face-twistingly repulsive collision of canned corned beef, gelatin, canned peas, vinegar, and lemon juice. Those brave enough to try it with 21st-century sensibilities describe it as “wrong in every way possible – just from the color to the smell, the texture, the flavor, the mouthfeel.” The smell, as you might imagine, is reminiscent of canned cat food; the look is bright and slimy, like something you’d pay to have removed from your body after weeks of increasing discomfort.
Kids, Especially, Drank a Ton of Milk
Cow’s milk is supposed to do a body a good, give you a hilarious mustache, and compel you to constantly ask others if they have it. We get it. But the amount of cow’s milk they funneled into school-aged kids during the Great Depression is alarming; the government advised a quart per day.
Milk-mad nutritionists at the time placed a “tremendous importance” on the stuff and considered it a complete “wonder food.” School lunches almost always featured milk on the plate as well, in the form of kid favorites such as creamed cabbage, creamed carrots, and cornstarch pudding.
Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast Was Nicknamed “Sh*t on a Shingle” by US Soldiers
In their book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, culinary historians Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe think call creamed chipped beef, a revolting combination of “canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar and lemon juice,” “wrong in every possible way” (though some are still nostalgic for it today).
Nicknamed “SOS” for “sh*t on a shingle,” creamed chipped beef was served on bread or crackers (“shingle” was military slang for a piece of toast). This hearty but unpleasant concoction first became popular during the Depression. Later, World War II servicemen would also dine on creamed chipped beef, and it even became a running joke on the TV show M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War.
10 oz. dried sliced beef, chopped into 1⁄2″ pieces (about 3 cups chopped)
7 1⁄2 cups milk
1⁄3 cup melted bacon grease
1 cup flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 slices white sandwich bread, toasted
Put beef into a large bowl, cover with cold water, and let soak for 3-5 minutes (depending on how salty you’d like the finished product). Drain beef and set aside.
Put milk into a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, put bacon grease and flour into a medium bowl and stir well to form a smooth paste. Reduce heat to medium-low, whisk flour paste into milk, and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 2-3 minutes. Add beef, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer until very thick, about 5 minutes more. Ladle the creamed chipped beef over toast and serve immediately. No griping!
Remember… back in those days, there was no electricity… no refrigerators… no law enforcement… and certainly no grocery store or supermarkets… Some of these exceptional skills are hundreds of years of old and they were learned the hard way by the early pioneers.
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