by Joanna Miller
It’s no Great Depression yet, but food inflation is definitely here. I was annoyed, but not surprised, to see that my favorite brand of flour had gone up by a dollar for a 5lb bag. I can’t really complain. I was on the phone with a friend in Guam who told me his wife walked into the grocery store last month to find that the prices on everything had doubled overnight. That was disconcerting. It makes you wonder what people ate during the Great Depression, when times were even more difficult than they are now
Many people believe it’s just the beginning. We have seen the signs of rising commodities (wheat, corn, soy, cotton) prices in general and in more specific areas like rising cooking oil prices. Add the current global energy crisis (it takes a lot of energy to produce and transport food), and we could be looking at what may be a pretty ugly winter.
However, we shouldn’t despair. We need to be aware, but not panicky. People have lived through times like this before. If we are willing to embrace our inner Frugalite and change some habits, we can live through this too.
People got creative with what they ate during the Great Depression
The Depression in the United States and the wartime rationing in World War II brought out a lot of ingenuity in people. Whether living in the city or the country, people got creative and stretched out whatever foods happened to be available.
I had family in both the city of Chicago and various rural areas. The city relatives recall eating a lot of Spam because it was the most affordable meat-like product at the time. Hot dogs were also cheap and used in recipes like Hoover Stew. Corned beef hash was another food my Chicago relatives ate a lot of, again because corned beef was cheap meat, and adding lots of potatoes could make the dish go a long way.
Of course, meat was hard to come by, and many people simply went without it. Many people who couldn’t afford it substituted beans in its place. In fact, baked bean sandwiches were typical Depression food while meat was in short supply. Here are some other ideas on meals during dire times and a baked beans recipe you might enjoy.
Some of the things people ate during the Great Depression are things we shun now.
Canned meat wasn’t available for many people living in rural areas. However, they had still had access to meats most of us would now consider offal. One of my great-grandmothers absolutely loved pickled tongue. Head cheese was another nutritious food made with animal parts we don’t usually consider eating.
People in the country and city may have foraged, depending on what part of the country. One branch of the family in Chicago would pull dandelions out of the cracks of the sidewalk. They would put the greens in salads and collect the heads to make wine. Another branch of the family, living in western Pennsylvania, was utterly impoverished. They did not get electricity or running water until the 1960s. They were coal miners and did not get paid enough to afford much food. Still, they ate better than many city people because they had a garden and could keep chickens for eggs. They spent the Depression eating eggs and vegetables.
It’s the little things
Finding small things to enjoy becomes more important than ever when the economy stinks and life, in general, is rough.
One of my great uncles, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, loved buttermilk with pepper sprinkled on it. Buttermilk at the grocery store is carefully cultured and pasteurized. But if your neighbor has a cow and the milk sits too long and goes sour, well, that’s also buttermilk.
Some people during the Depression learned to love what many of us would think of as spoiled food.
What people ate during the Great Depression: Mock-Pie
Depression-era pies were where human creativity really shone. People would make pies out of anything and call it dessert. You can put Jello in a pie crust and have Jell-O pie. One of my elderly relatives still considers Jell-O with milk poured over it a real treat. Some other creative pie recipes using readily available ingredients during this time included:
- water pie
- vinegar pie (You can make this with any flavored vinegar. I imagine apple cider would probably taste the best.)
- bean pie
- raisin pie
- buttermilk pie
- mock pecan pie
- mock apple pie
William Woys Weaver’s Dutch Treats also has recipes for some interesting pies. For example, hardtack pie and pies made with unripe fruit. I originally bought that book out of curiosity about my own Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. I was surprised at the number of recipes featuring scrap ingredients such as bread crumbs and leftover mashed potatoes, the original ingredient in Whoopie pie filling. Casseroles can be king when stretching your food supply. Here’s an easy recipe formula for creating your own!
People could not afford to waste food or be picky
If you’re interested in doing some serious reading on more traditional foods, Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions is a great start. Some of the recipes call for expensive ingredients, but there are also a lot of recipes for organ meats and broths, nutritious foods we can make using scrap meats and bones. Old cookbooks like the Fanny Farmer Cookbook may also spawn inspiration.
So, what can we learn from these older generations of cooks?
Well, first of all, they wasted nothing. I used to think I was thrifty until I read about housewives sweeping the breadcrumbs off their cutting boards to save for use in pies and cakes. They used cheap, easy-to-grow ingredients like beans and potatoes to stretch out whatever meat they had. We can look at recipes for things like Hobo Stew.
But the truth is, much of the food people ate was whatever was available. Meat scraps, bones, and vegetables went into the soup pot for one-pot meals. Any sweet or rich things went into a pie crust and counted as dessert.
You might want to re-evaluate
You may be thinking to yourself, “But I can’t just eat whatever is lying around. I’m gluten-free/paleo/keto/carnivore/vegan, whatever.” Perhaps you should reconsider. One option is to stockpile all your preferred foods. A better option would probably be to get healthier without relying on diets that involve esoteric ingredients.
The time to get healthy was yesterday. Now is the time to experiment and see what you can tolerate from locally produced and readily available foods. If the thought of eating canned meat and pies made out of Saltines doesn’t tickle your fancy, you need to think about producing your food. Because before long, you may not have a lot of other options.
People got sick and died from nutritional deficiencies a lot in those days. Although it wasn’t during the Depression, one of my great-grandmothers died in childbirth, in 1929, from toxemia, which correlates with protein deficiency. That branch of the family was not particularly poor. They just really loved sugar, and they didn’t pay as much attention to having a balanced diet back then. But that could easily happen to any pregnant woman unable to afford meat. The adult relatives who lived off eggs and veggies in the Appalachians were fine. However, the children all had rickets and were quite bowlegged.
Depression food is not depressing
I don’t say any of this to scare people or make them depressed. This article is to inform and impress upon readers that food shortages are serious. They have happened in the United States, and we need to be thinking about them.
Regardless of our finances, all of us can learn a lot about mental preparedness from our great-grandparents. They spent more than a decade eating whatever they could. They also used their creative abilities to make “Depression food” surprisingly tasty a lot of the time. Admittedly, most of them were probably healthier heading into the Depression. In 1930, 21.5% of the nation’s population was employed in agriculture.
People 90 years ago were far more used to working outdoors in all kinds of weather. Nearly everyone was raised on primarily organic, unprocessed food back then because most of the agrichemicals and food additives weren’t around yet.
Get used to going without and being uncomfortable
Contrast the lean, physically active American of 1930 with the average overweight, sedentary American of today. Consider pushing yourself a little bit now while you can still control your circumstances. If you have a sugar addiction, trying to break it can be a great start. Set your thermostat lower in the winter and higher in the summer (you’ll probably have to do that soon anyway, thanks to the skyrocketing energy prices). Get used to being a tad uncomfortable much of the time, and smile while you’re doing it.
The truth is, for the past 80 years, we’ve been living in an almost absurdly artificial world. No one other than the most decadent royalty of ages past had access to the variety of food and creature comforts we have. Now, I’m not too fond of all the circumstances that have forced us to lose these daily pleasantries. But whether we like it or not, most of us are probably about to lose a lot in terms of enjoyable extras. Not everyone living 100 (or 1000) years ago was miserable all the time. We need to learn how to not be miserable in reduced circumstances, too.
We CAN do this
If you need to be cheered up a little bit, I’d suggest trying one of the pie recipes listed above that people ate during the Great Depression. You may find out you enjoy some of these “poor man” dishes more than you think. I tried hard tack pie, which is pretty similar to the mock apple pie listed above, and it was surprisingly delicious. It was definitely not as sweet as what we would typically think of as a dessert. But it had a nice flavor and texture and went well with coffee.
There may be some hard times coming up. But our civilization isn’t the first to collapse, and it won’t be the last, either. When Rome collapsed, it wasn’t like everyone just magically disappeared. They just went on living, albeit in little scattered villages instead of a big, glittery city. Just because things get more challenging doesn’t mean they’re over. Our great-grandparents made some huge adjustments and survived to tell the tale. If they can do it, so can we.
When thinking about what people ate during the Great Depression, think about older family members.
Do (or did) any of your older family members have a penchant for eating something that seemed strange? If it’s an inexpensive item, it just might be a favorite comfort food that they ate during the Great Depression.
What are your favorite Depression food tips, and who taught them to you? Thinking about trying one of the recipes from above? Let us know how it turns out!