Eating in Lean Times

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As bad as the economy seems right now, it’s been worse—much worse. As in, ketchup-soup-for-dinner worse. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, although few people were outright starving, filling the belly sometimes called for resourcefulness.

Some people took to riding the rails in search of work, and scraping up whatever food they could. One account by a former hobo described a typical meal, “Mulligan’s Stew”:

One 'bo has an onion, he pinched from a fruit market; another has several potatoes and an ear of corn leased from a farmer's field. Edible greens are gathered and contributed to the pottage: Dandelions and sour dock; wild leeks and onions. Sometimes pigweed is found in abundance.

Some bits and pieces of meat. A handful of navy beans carried in a pocket for a month. Cast every bean into the pot, along with a smattering of Bull Durham tobacco and lint.

It reminds me of one of my favorite books as a child, my mother’s copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, about a girl named Francie growing up in poverty during the early 1900s. Although it takes place before the Depression, the creative ways Francie’s mother turned scraps into sustaining meals was similar to what many people did then:

She'd take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

Another dish that was popularized during the Depression was Mock Apple Pie, made with Ritz crackers instead of apples, which must have been expensive at the time. I have tasted it, and it really does taste like apple pie, if the apples were cooked to a mush. The pie actually originated with pioneers who traveled west in the 1800s and couldn’t find apples; it was made with soda crackers then. Saveur magazine has an interesting article explaining the science of such palate trickery.

The current interest in learning about the Depression has made an online sensation of the YouTube series “Great Depression Cooking With Clara,” by a filmmaker named Christopher Cannucciari. He filmed his charming nonagenarian grandma cooking dishes such as Egg Drop Soup and telling stories from the era.

It inspired me to call up my own 90-year-old granny to find out what she ate as a little girl in Chicago, but she couldn’t remember—though she can still recite the one phrase in Bohemian she learned back then, meaning, “Today we go mushroom hunting.”

Maybe you’ll have better luck getting your parents or grandparents to reminisce about Depression dining. If you do, leave a comment letting us know what you’ve learned.

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