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Feature Thu Mar 12 2009
I set out to research Depression-era cooking mostly by accident. I was thumbing through my recipe box and came across a card for a lemon dessert. It was an odd one, which used a bit of this and a bit of that, and I always had it stuck in my head it had been created as a result of Depression-created hardships. But what is true about American households during the 1930s is that while there were significant, life-altering hardships, most families did not suffer starvation.
"...while the Depression brought bread lines, soup kitchens, hoboes begging for food at middle-class doors, and thousands of hungry families in devastated parts of rural America, starvation was unheard-of. Persistent hunger was more common, but it was localized, affecting mainly marginalized populations who played a small role in politics or the marketplace. After the initial dislocation, when local and private relief agencies were bankrupted, enough federal and state resources seem to have been mobilized to provide enough relief and/or jobs to head off serious threats to the nutrition of most of the poor and unemployed, particularly in the cities....While they did cut back on meat, fowl, fish, and fresh fruit, they still ate adequate amounts of vegetables, fresh and canned...This does not mean that the Depression did not scar Americans. Whether hungry or not, economic hardship was ever-present in most Americans' minds: they either experienced it, feared it, or were concerned about others living through it."
- Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, Harvey Levenstein [Oxford University Press:New York] 1988 (p. 196-7)
While there may have been cutbacks in the amount of meat used in the family's meals, there was not "rationing" — at least not in the way American's felt true rationing during the World Wars which bookended our Great Depression (1929-1940).
So, what typifies American cooking during the Great Depression? Creativity and an overall sense of frugality and a determination to use every scrap that might prove useful.
When I first set out to try and find some true "Depression-era" recipes, what I actually found was a lot of nothing. Researching and publishing books on wartime cooking seems to be much more popular, and more likely to have produced dedicated cookbooks and histories. Troubling as this loss of true American historical perspective is, what the internet will hopefully provide us during our current economic problems is a medium where we can preserve our ideas for posterity.
If there was ever a time for all of us to and compile oral histories from our parents and grandparents, this is it. One of the most popular search results for "depression cooking" is a fantastic series of YouTube videos titled "Depression Cooking with Clara". Clara Cannucciari is a 93-year-old great-grandmother who lives in Skaneateles, New York but is a native of Melrose Park. Filmed in her own kitchen by her great-grandson, Clara prepares simple meals like "pasta and peas" (video below) and tells tales of her childhood during the Great Depression in the Chicago area. See if you can spot the Chicago spoonrest in her first episode.
Because of the increased interest in these (pretty darn well produced) videos, Clara now has her own website, blog, and you can even friend her on Facebook (hint: search for DepressionCooking@gmail.com).
Green Tomato Pie
An example of creative use of what you might have in abundance, at least perhaps later in the summer if you plant your own tomato plants, or when tomatoes are plentiful at the farmer's markets and grocery stores there are many different versions of this very simple savory pie.
Mock Apple Pie (or Ritz Pie)
What's an interesting clue to what constitutes a Depression-era recipe is when particular main ingredients came on the market. The Food Timeline notes that Ritz crackers were introduced in 1934 by Nabisco. Here's an ad from the 1930s for Ritz. This example of creative use of pantry staples is sometimes called the "mock apple pie" which has a filling of Ritz crackers instead of the more expensive apple slices. I've never eaten this dish, but the comments on many threads lead me to believe it would be a tasty experiment.
Other interesting products introduced during the 1930s include: Wonder Bread (1930), Bisquick (1931), Wyler's Bouillon Cubes (1931), Pet Evaporated Milk (1934) (after gaining popularity in military rations during the Spanish-American War and WWI), Betty Crocker (1936), Spam (1937) and Ragu Spaghetti Sauce (1937).
An example of using staples in the pantry, salmon or mackerel croquettes allow you to use economical canned fish to create a meal you stretch even further with cornmeal or breadcrumbs.
An example of a frugal recipe that has traveled through time and has adapted to the conventions of the day is bread pudding. Traced back to ancient peoples, this dish involves stale bread, some fat (likely butter) and a variety of spices. Food Timeline offers examples of recipes for Poor Man's Bread Pudding (1847), Bread and "poor man's puddings" from Fannie Farmer cookbooks "with a coarse grater there need be but little waste" (1918), and a bread pudding recipe from 1936 from The Settlement Cook Book, Mrs. Simon Kander [Settlement Cook Book Co.:Milwaukee] Twenty-first Edition Enlarged and Revised 1936 (p. 341).
Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Vol. III (See also Vols I, II, IV, and V)
(Big thanks to Bliss Hanlin who helped me research this piece.)
- Anne Holub