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A 21st Century Look at Foods of the Great Depression

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.


We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.

— Herbert Hoover (31st president of the United States), August 11, 1928

First, a Brief History Lesson

After the end of the First World War in 1918, the United States was reveling in new-found prosperity. Employment was up, and consumer goods (appliances, cars, furnishings) were flowing out of factories at a record pace. Wise and prudent investment was replaced with reckless optimism; everyone from the mill worker to the millionaire bought heavily in the stock market. Speculative fever infected the masses as money was exchanged for unseen real estate, foreign currencies, and investment in new companies that had not yet opened their doors. Stocks were so overvalued that the dotcom crash of 2000 was, in comparison, a walk in the park.

Looking at the events of 90 years ago, it is apparent that the government had adopted a hands-off, laissez-faire attitude to economic planning. One can point at the actions, or lack thereof, of the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations for the lax oversight of banking, the stock market, and basic aspects of the economy. They were also supported by a staff that did little to analyze statistics that would have revealed growing problems in investing, international trade, and the buildup of consumer good inventories.

The market peaked in the summer of 1929 although GDP (gross domestic production) was struggling, in large part, because of the drought in the Midwest. This ignited a chain reaction resulting in a nightmarish wild ride of foreclosures and repossessions which then led to reduced spending, which increased layoffs, and then production slowdowns, and massive un- or under-employment.

On October 24, 1929, all hell broke loose—nervous investors cashed in their stocks and “Black Thursday” saw 12.9 million shares traded. Five days later, 16 million more shares exchanged hands and many investors were crushed because their original purchases were made with borrowed, not real, money.

By 1930 four million people were out of work, and by 1931 that number had increased to six million. Farmers could not afford to harvest their crops and food rotted in the fields while thousands starved. Bread lines and soup kitchens sprang up in American cities. My parents were young adults at the time, trying to raise a family and make ends meet. My mother told stories of men who had lost all hope, knocking on the back door, offering to chop wood or do any other work needed around the house in exchange for just a sandwich.

No Unemployment Insurance, Welfare, or Food Stamps

According to Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe in their book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression:

… an Arkansas widow and her seven children were found by a relief worker to have little more than “a pint of flour and a few scraps of chicken bones” in the larder; out-of-work West Virginia coal miners were limited to “potatoes, bread, beans, oleomargarine.” In the Dust Bowl, families “pared back their daily diet to the bare minimum of flour, lard, and potatoes,” often supplemented by Russian thistle—better known as tumbleweed. Pellagra, rickets and other diseases of malnutrition were rampant. The effects of vitamin deficiency could be felt into the war years when a startling number of young draftees for the 2nd World War failed their physicals.

It is estimated that more than two million people became “hobos”, men and women riding the rails in search of work. Sadly, many were teens who felt that they were an unnecessary burden on their families.

It’s difficult to imagine. The average income of the American family had decreased by 40 percent. One in every four workers was unemployed, and those who were lucky enough to hold onto their jobs found their hours severely cut. Many families began backyard gardens, and vacant lots were converted to “thrift gardens” for those who did not have space for a plot of their own.


In New York

In New York City, the Mayor's Committee on Unemployment was formed to supply needy families with fuel, clothing, and food. Supplies were delivered to police precinct stations which were repurposed as distribution centers. Needy families were given 40 pounds of food (enough for a family of four for a week). A typical box would have contained:

20 pounds of potatoes

2 pounds of dried beans

2 pounds of rice

2 pounds of macaroni

2 pounds of onions

2 pounds of cabbage

2 pounds of turnips

4 pounds of carrots

1 pound of sugar

1 pound of coffee

1 pound of evaporated milk

1 pound of canned tomatoes

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Ziegelman and Andrew Coe stated in their book that thoughts of the next meal were a constant companion not just for the adults of the family, but impacted the children as well:

"For many students, lunch was their only meal of the day; parents counted on it, not only for the sake of the child, but with one meal covered by the (school) lunchroom, more food was left for the rest of the family. Alternately, children saved food from their lunch trays to take home to parents, brothers, and sisters."

Pleasure Was Non-Essential, Nutrition Was the Goal

As you can see from the above list, meals were heavy with low-cost foodstuffs—carbohydrates and beans. Vegetables were almost non-existent. Meals were not healthy and balanced, and they weren't very appealing. They did, however, serve the purpose of satisfying gnawing hunger and providing much-needed calories for survival. A few meals that were common at the time were:

  • Creamed chipped beef
  • Hot dogs and baked beans
  • Warm stewed tomatoes with bread
  • Fried bologna sandwich
  • Mashed potato pancakes

Do you notice the lack of meat? (Chipped beef, hot dogs, and bologna can hardly be considered “meat.”)

Let's examine the first three meals on the above list and see if any they can be adapted for today and improved in taste, nutrition, and appearance.

Original Recipe: Creamed Chipped Beef

With sodium-laden dried beef, a one-eighth pound of butter, and a quart of full-fat milk, it difficult to find any redeeming qualities in the original dish outlined below.


  • 1 jar dried beef, sliced into thin ribbons
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • Pepper to taste

Revised Recipe: Creamed Winter Greens

Here is my concept of a more heart- and waistline-friendly substitute. This recipe is adapted from one that appeared in Cooking Light magazine. Iron and fiber-rich dark leafy greens replace the dried beef and low- or non-fat dairy products are substituted for the whole milk and butter.


  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 1 cup sweet onion, diced (Walla Walla or Vidalia)
  • 2 tablespoons sliced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup fat-free milk
  • 3 ounces 1/3-less-fat cream cheese
  • 3/4 cup part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 ounces kale washed, stems removed, leaves chopped
  • 14 ounces of spinach leaves, washed


  1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium. Add the onion and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and starting to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add flour, and cook, stirring constantly with a wire whisk for 1 minute. Stir in milk; bring to a boil, and boil 2 minutes, whisking often. Remove from heat. Add cream cheese, mozzarella, and salt; stir until cheeses melt.
  2. Add the kale and spinach to the Dutch oven; cover and cook until they begin to wilt, about 3 minutes. (The residual water on the green should provide enough liquid). Add milk mixture to spinach mixture; reduce heat to low, and cook until greens are wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir just until combined

Yield: 4 servings

Estimated nutritional comparison for one serving

 Chipped BeefWilted Greens




Total Fat

19.8 g

9.2 g


69.4 mg

21.4 mg


593.5 mg

318.6 mg


414.2 mg

968.2 mg

Total Carbohydrates



Original Recipe: Hot Dogs and Baked Beans

Van Camp's beans in tomato sauce have long been a pantry staple in U.S. households—an easy-to-prepare and inexpensive source of fiber and protein and I'm certain that they would have been a source of nourishment during the decade of the Great Depression.

The hot dogs are another story, however. Today we can purchase franks at the grocery store, 10-to-a-package, uniform, wrapped in plastic. In the 1930s hot dogs were made by a butcher, using his personal recipe and utilizing whatever scraps were available. Therefore, the nutritional data are impossible to calculate but again, we can surmise that they were built of beef and pork, spices, and a healthy dose of salt and fat.

Revised Recipe: Slow Cooker Baked Beans

Is a healthy hot dog an oxymoron? It doesn't have to be. In the 21st century, we have so many options—all beef, pork and beef, turkey, chicken, vegetarian, vegan. If you want a meat-based dog that is lower in fat and sodium, opt for an all-beef skinless variety. Boar's Head produces a skinless frank with only 120 calories, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 350 milligrams of sodium. Add them to my recipe for baked beans and you will have a healthier yet inexpensive update of the original hot dogs and baked beans.


  • 1 cup dry red beans
  • 1 cup dry navy beans
  • 1 cup dry baby lima beans
  • 2 cups diced yellow onion
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard


  1. Rinse and sort beans to remove any field dust or rocks. Place in a 5-quart slow cooker (Crockpot).
  2. Add 8 cups of water and allow to soak overnight (at least 12 hours).
  3. Drain and rinse beans; return them to the slow cooker add enough fresh water to cover them an extra 2 inches.
  4. Add remaining ingredients to beans. Stir and cover.
  5. Cook on low 12 hours.

Yield: 12 servings

Original Recipe: Warm Stewed Tomatoes With Bread


  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) stewed tomatoes
  • 4 slices of white bread

This meal reminds me of my dad. Long after the end of the Depression and when we were well able to afford meat and vegetables, this was still his go-to comfort food. A dish of warmed stewed tomatoes with a slice of Wonder Bread was his choice when he came home from working the graveyard shift and wanted a simple meal before climbing into bed for a well-earned sleep.

Stewed tomatoes are tomatoes with onions and seasonings. In my mind, this dish is just a click or two away from the rustic soup of Tuscany—Ribolitta.



Revised Recipe: Ribolitta


  • 10 oz. dry cannellini beans
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1 large red tomato, diced
  • 7 oz. Tuscan kale, tough rib removed and leaves chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme
  • 8 slices artisanal French of Italian bread, diced (see note below*)
  • pinch red pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper, to taste


  1. First, sort and wash the navy beans. What do I mean by sorting? Spread them out on a cookie sheet and pick through them looking for rocks, small clumps of dirt, or shriveled beans. Trust me, you don't want to have those things in your soup. Beans are not washed when they are harvested—any moisture would cause them to mold, so please wash your beans to remove field dust.
  2. Next, place your washed beans in an 8-quart stockpot. Add enough water to have about 2 inches of water above the beans (about 6 cups of water). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil 2 minutes and then remove from the heat. Cover and let stand 1 hour. This soaking time will reduce the actual time the beans need to simmer and will help retain nutrients.
  3. In the same stockpot, sauté the onion, celery, and carrots in 1/3 cup olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomato and sauté a few minutes more.
  4. Add the soaked drained beans and 2 quarts of fresh water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer about 2 hours or until beans are tender.
  5. Once cooked, pour the beans into a large mixing bowl. Remove one-half of the beans and broth to a food processor and blend until smooth. Wash the stockpot and return it to the stove. Heat to medium.
  6. Add the garlic, thyme, and the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil to the stockpot; simmer a few minutes. Stir in the kale and continue to cook a few minutes more, until the kale begins to wilt.
  7. Stir in the blended beans and broth. Bring all to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  8. Stir the bread into the soup. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, mixing occasionally. This is a good time to check the salt and pepper too.
  9. Add the rest of the beans and broth and a pinch of red hot pepper. Mix in well.
  10. Serve warm with a bit of olive oil.

Note: If your bread is not dry you can slice it and bake it in the oven at low heat to dry it quickly.

Did you learn from today's history lesson?


© 2019 Linda Lum

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