10 Curious Recipes From the Depression Era (2024)

According to historians, modern society can learn a lot from the myriad ways people put food on the table during the Great Depression. While some people raised livestock and grew their own fruits and vegetables, others had to stretch every dollar and pinch every penny to get the most food for their buck during hard economic times. Here are 10 recipes that might seem strange today but were regular features at mealtime in the Depression Era. For more recipes from that time, pick up A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.

During the Great Depression, potatoes and hot dogs were very inexpensive, so many meals included either or both ingredients. In the video above, Clara—who lived through the Depression and passed away in 2013—walked viewers through the process of making the “poor man’s meal”: Peel and cube a potato, then fry it in a pan with oil and chopped onions until they brown and soften. Then add slices of hot dog, cook a few minutes more, and serve.

2. Creamed Chipped Beef

Made with dried and salted beef, creamed chipped beef was an easy and cheap dish that originated in Eastern Pennsylvania Dutch Country, New Jersey, and the Mid-Atlantic. To make it yourself, melt two tablespoons of butter in a pot over medium heat and add two tablespoons of flour to make a roux. Slowly whisk in 1.5 cups of milk until it thickens and boils. Add 8 ounces of dried beef (like Hormel) and serve over toast.

Affectionately called S.O.S. (“sh*t on a shingle” or “save our stomachs”), creamed chipped beef on toast was also a staple of the U.S. military during World War I and especially World War II.

Hoovervilles—shantytowns that sprang up during the Depression—weren’t the only things named after America’s 31st president, who had the misfortune to be elected just before the Crash. Hoover stew was the name given to the soup from soup kitchens or similarly thin broths. One recipe calls for cooking a 16-ounce box of noodles like macaroni or spaghetti. While that’s on the stove, slice hot dogs into round shapes. Drain the pasta when it’s almost done and return to the pot; drop in the sliced hot dogs. Add two cans of stewed tomatoes and one can of corn or peas (with liquid) to the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer until the pasta is finished cooking. No need to use corn or peas; you can substitute those veggies for anything canned and inexpensive.

4. Egg Drop Soup

Here’s Clara’s recipe for egg drop soup: Peel and dice a potato and an onion. Slowly brown them in a pot with oil until soft, then add bay leaves and salt and pepper. Once browned, add half a pot of water to the mix to make broth. Simmer on the stove and add more salt and pepper to taste until the potatoes are cooked. While boiling, crack two eggs into the pot and stir until scrambled. Add two more eggs into the soup so the yolk hardens and add cheese to finish it off. Once completed, serve the egg drop soup over toast.

In the 1930s, gelatin was considered a modern, cutting-edge food. Dishes like corned beef luncheon salad—which consisted of canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar, lemon juice, and occasionally cabbage—were very popular and inexpensive to make. According to Andy Coe, co-author of A Square Meal, the recipe was just “wrong in every possible way” when compared with today’s modern tastes and palate.

6. Frozen Fruit Salad

Served during the holiday season as a special treat, frozen fruit salad was made with canned fruit co*cktail (or your favorite canned fruit), egg yolks, honey, and whipping cream.

One of the dishes Eleanor Roosevelt recommended and promoted with the development of home economics in schools and colleges during the Great Depression was spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce. It consists of spaghetti cooked until mushy (about 25 minutes) and mixed with boiled carrots. The white sauce is made from milk, flour, salt, butter or margarine, and a little pepper. After mixing, pour into a tray and bake to make a casserole.

8. Prune Pudding

10 Curious Recipes From the Depression Era (2)

Although he had a taste for fancy meals, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was served a humble seven-and-a-half-cent lunch, which included deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, coffee, and, for dessert, prune pudding. Roosevelt’s White House ate modestly in “an act of culinary solidarity with the people who were suffering,” Jane Ziegelman, co-author of A Square Meal, told The New York Times.

Most For Your Money Cookbook, published in 1938, offers two recipes for buttermilk soup. The first involves adding raisins, some nutmeg, sugar, salt, and a lemon peel to a quart of buttermilk; bring that to a boil, then add rice. Cover and “boil slowly until rice is soft.” The authors note that “Buttermilk should sell for less than half the price of fresh milk ... which makes the above soup one of the cheapest and most nutritious we know, besides being a novel change from the usual run of soups.”

10. Dandelion Salad

Guides like 1937’s Americas Cookbook recommended using dandelion greens in a number of recipes, including salads. In the video above, you can watch Clara whip up a dandelion salad, which she noted was “free and good for you”—in fact, dandelions are a nutrient-rich superfood. She dug her dandelions right out of her backyard by the roots; next, she removed the flowers (although they’re also edible) and dead leaves and washed them rigorously to get rid of all the dirt. Clara dressed the salad with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt.

A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.

10 Curious Recipes From the Depression Era (2024)


10 Curious Recipes From the Depression Era? ›

Many cheap foods still common among the poor today made their debut during the Depression: Wonder Bread (1930), Bisquick (1931), Miracle Whip (1933), and Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup (1934). Ragu spaghetti sauce, Kraft mac-n-cheese, and Hormel Spam all appeared during the Roosevelt Recession in 1937.

What were common dishes from the Great Depression? ›

Top 10 Great Depression Foods That Are Actually Tasty
  1. 1 Wacky Cake. How to Make Crazy Cake.
  2. 2 Water Pie. HOT WATER Desperation Pie | HARD TIMES – recipes from times of scarcity. ...
  3. 3 Hoover Stew. ...
  4. 4 Mystery Spice Cake. ...
  5. 5 Prune Pudding. ...
  6. 6 Mock Apple Pie. ...
  7. 7 Spaghetti with Carrots and White Sauce. ...
  8. 8 Egg Drop Soup. ...
Oct 5, 2023

What did poor people eat during Great Depression? ›

Many cheap foods still common among the poor today made their debut during the Depression: Wonder Bread (1930), Bisquick (1931), Miracle Whip (1933), and Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup (1934). Ragu spaghetti sauce, Kraft mac-n-cheese, and Hormel Spam all appeared during the Roosevelt Recession in 1937.

What tasty treat was created during the Great Depression? ›

Water Pie. Water pie — made with just six ingredients: water, flour, sugar, vanilla extract, butter, and a pie crust — may seem like a fun hack today, but during the Great Depression, it was simply a dessert that reflected the circ*mstances for many Americans.

What was created to feed Americans during the Depression? ›

Soup kitchens and bread lines were methods of feeding the neediest people in the country during the Great Depression. Run by charities, private companies, and the government, many soup kitchens and bread lines served thousands of people a day.

What was a typical meal in the 1930s? ›

Big families could be fed with soups from leftover meats, beans, and home-grown vegetables. Homemakers made many varieties of soup from available foods. The results included split pea, chicken-rice, potato-onion, bean, hamburger, and all vegetable. Dumplings were a filling addition to complement the soup.

What was typical 1930s food? ›

They included: Kool-Aid powder drink, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Bisquick, Spam (precooked canned pork), Twinkies, Ritz Crackers, Lay's Potato Chips, cereals of Cheerios and Chex and Three Musketeers Bar. Maybe the most favorite item coming from the 1930s was the new Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies developed in 1938.

What did hobos eat during the Great Depression? ›

Perhaps one hobo acquired a few carrots from a charitable person, while another stole an onion off a box car, while another had a few potatoes from a farm he worked on briefly… From this concoction, a “hobo stew,” also known as “Mulligan/Mulligatawney stew” was born and became the traditional food of the hobo.

What is the poor mans meal? ›

Potatoes were also inexpensive and used extensively. Some meals even used both. One of these meals was called the Poor Man's Meal. It combined potatoes, onions, and hot dogs into one hearty, inexpensive dish, which was perfect for the hard times people had fallen on.

What is a soup kitchen Great Depression? ›

During the Great Depression preceding the passage of the Social Security Act, "soup kitchens" provided the only meals some unemployed Americans had. This particular soup kitchen was sponsored by the Chicago gangster Al Capone.

What unusual dessert became popular during the Depression? ›

A common depression cake is also known as "Boiled Raisin Cake", "Milkless, Eggless, Butterless Cake", or "Poor Man's Cake".

What is depression cooking? ›

Depression Cooking is a zine of easy recipes designed to make mealtime a little easier, in the no-nonsense sense of the word, for depressed humans like me. It demonstrates one of the many lessons that I've learned during COVID: that we can care for one another without being physically present.

What did families do for food during the Great Depression? ›

Many people turned to farming, and grew the food themselves, like fruits, vegetables, cattle, chickens, sheep, and hogs. Many people would can their food so that it would last longer. Some people chose to hunt for their food. Some people harvested their own bees to make honey.

What president was responsible for the Great Depression? ›

By the summer of 1932, the Great Depression had begun to show signs of improvement, but many people in the United States still blamed President Hoover. With the Presidential election approaching, the Democratic candidate, New York Governor Franklin D.

What was popular during the Great Depression? ›

Radio programs, music, dancing and dance marathons, and cinema were popular forms of entertainment during the Great Depression. Many people affected by the economic downturn sought inexpensive ways to pass the time and distract themselves from the challenging circ*mstances.

What was popular in the Great Depression? ›

Inexpensive amusem*nts included backyard games, puzzles, card games, and board games such as Monopoly, which was introduced in 1935. Even the national pastime, baseball, changed profoundly during the Great Depression.

What was common during the Great Depression? ›

Factories were shut down, farms and homes were lost to foreclosure, mills and mines were abandoned, and people went hungry. The resulting lower incomes meant the further inability of the people to spend or to save their way out of the crisis, thus perpetuating the economic slowdown in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

What was junk food in the 1930s? ›

Many of today's favorite snacks were also introduced during this decade: Twinkies, Snickers, Tootsie Pops, Fritos, 3 Musketeers, Ritz Crackers, Kit Kat Bars, Five-Flavor Life Savers, 5th Avenue Bars, Rolo, Smarties, Heath Bar, Lay's Potato Chips and RC Cola.

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