A 21st Century Look at Foods of the Great Depression

Updated on October 22, 2019
Carb Diva profile image

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

Source

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.

Source

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.

Source

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

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.

Three Meals

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.

Ingredients

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

Source

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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

 
Chipped Beef
Wilted Greens
Calories
300
201
Total Fat
19.8 g
9.2 g
Cholesterol
69.4 mg
21.4 mg
Sodium
593.5 mg
318.6 mg
Potassium
414.2 mg
968.2 mg
Total Carbohydrates
17.9
19.9
Estimated nutritional comparison for one serving
Source

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  1. Rinse and sort beans to remove any field dust or rocks. Place in a 5-quart slow cooker (crock pot).
  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

Ingredients

  • 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.

ribolitta
ribolitta | Source

Revised Recipe: Ribolitta

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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 stock pot, 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 stock pot and return it to the stove. Heat to medium.
  6. Add the garlic, thyme, and the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil to the stock pot; 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?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you Cynthia. I love telling stories and I think it helps the reader to remember--its a hook to get you interested. I'm a history nut too so if you read my articles be prepared for a short lesson (some of which might be delivered with a bit of tongue in cheek).

      • techygran profile image

        Cynthia 

        3 weeks ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

        Such a great idea to contrast the food that was available then, and the rich resources we have now to feed ourselves well. Your stories were nicely put together. I always like the personal, so knowing that your Dad ate stewed tomatoes, or that your parents were young parents during the Depression makes the whole article come to life for me. Good work!

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Temperature is always a question here. Perhaps the heat is needed for melting of stuff. But with 6 kids hot was left for the eldest.So being the youngest I have an affinity to colder.I wonder how that works. My only young, Gabe gets it hot but lets it cool.Perhaps something deep there. Oh well off to the courthouse.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Perfect toast? Well, there's a topic I haven't addressed. I DID write an article about Perfect Crostini and Bruschetta. You might look that one up.

        In the meantime, I will add your question to my Q&A.

        You have reminded me of Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." Didn't Phinneas Fogg require that his toast be at a precise temperature?

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Now Mrs. Diva, I am it a bit of a jam here and If I do not hurry I will be toast. Oh yes that is why I write here as time has put me in a pickle. So about this toast deal. I love my toast with all kinds of ecrutriments, What is the science/art around making perfect toast? That deal with a fried egg is marbaladish.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, I agree. I love it here.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        3 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        I came back to read comments. "A person's quality is best judged by the quality of friends they keep" Your friends are quality people.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        3 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you John. I think I'll have another go at this, finding more old-time concepts that I can update. Thank you for your kind words.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        4 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

        My parents also lived through the Depression and told me a few stories. One culinary delight they mentioned was "bread and dripping." Thank you for the interesting history lesson and you did a great job with the alternate recipes. Good article, Linda, as always.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Ohmygoodness, my mom did that too!

      • Rochelle Frank profile image

        Rochelle Frank 

        4 weeks ago from California Gold Country

        My parents were married in 1934. They lived thrrough world war, a major earthquake (Long Beach 1933) and the depression. .. and we think we have stress.

        My mom was a beautiful, smart, wonderful, woman with many talents, but her culinary skills were a little lower on her list of attributes. Now that I think about it, the economic depression may have played a part in that. It was hard enough to get basic staple foods. Tere was no way you could produce gourmet fare when even bread, milk, flour and eggs were relatively expensive.

        I can remember in later years when mom would bake a canned spam covered with a mustard, brown sugar glaze and dotted with cloves to resemble a baked ham. It was a special occasion.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Sha coming from such a large family I'm certain that your mother was impacted by the Great Depression. Chipped beef is a tad on the salty side, but I've been known to consume a bowl or two of beenie weanies. And, I'll see what I can do about those Depression Era recipes.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 

        4 weeks ago from Central Florida

        Fascinating information, Linda. My mom was born in 1938, the ninth of ten kids, so I'm sure they felt the effects of the Great Depression. However, I've never heard any first-hand stories.

        I've never been a fan of chipped beef, but I do like an occasional bowl of beanie-weanies, as I call them. I'd like to see more Depression era recipes, Linda. This was a great history lesson!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Mary, homelessness is at epidemic proportions in the Pacific NW as well but I think that, in general, the circumstances are very different. Nevertheless, it's good to understand how to make do with less. $1.00 fast food isn't the answer.

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 

        4 weeks ago from Brazil

        I used to enjoy chipped beef on toast. We still eat potato pancakes with great regularity. Good hot dogs, aren't that easy to find here.

        This was an interesting reminder and I am sure for many people it's relevant in today's economy. The number of homeless people in California is astounding and so sad.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, they weren't the healthiest of meals to eat, but you and I are still here. I haven't had them in about the same amount of time. Can't say I miss it.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, I love your last statement. That's why I do what I do.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, it affected the way many people lived the rest of their lives. In my family and my husband's it seems they became borderline hoarders, not wanting to throw away anything.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

        I grew up eating those meals. Chipped beef on toast was a staple for us, as was hot dogs and beans. I don't think I've had either of them in about fifty years now. :(

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        4 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Hmm. My mom and first wife always had a man or lady working about, In neither case not really needed and none of my business. I had no idea these favorites came from the depression. My wife cooks like this a bit a child of post Vietnam conflict.

        We live down Mexico way and the tough migrants eat very similar. Thanks for this Linda. Every root is a journey worth knowing.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 weeks ago from USA

        This was a good history lesson. My grandfather was so impacted by the Great Depression that he never again trusted his money to banks. He always kept it in large bills ironed flat and stored in a black dress sock.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Peggy, we were more connected with others then don't you think? God bless your grandmother for being such a caring soul.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        4 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

        My grandmother always helped to feed the hobos who would come to her door for help. She also collected clothes for them if they needed it. She would let them do some type of job which they wanted to do like shoveling snow, raking leaves or whatever made sense depending upon the time of year. Their dignity remained intact that way.

        Yes, most people had home gardens back then. Times were hard but lessons could be learned from that time.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

        Thank you, Pamela. I am always gladdened by the thought that even though it was a terrible time in our history, it was also a time that neighbor helped neighbor.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        This is a good history lesson, and I think we need to remember the lessons from our past history. I have had a few of those unhealthy meals when I was young. I enjoyed this well-written article.

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