29 Weird Great Depression Foods That Will Make You Grateful You Weren’t Alive Then
In October 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed and launched the country into the worst economic downturn in its history. For an entire decade, spending and investment was at an all-time low, which meant unemployment was high and the majority of American families were surviving on next to nothing. It was during this period in time that bare-bones recipes were created. We probably wouldn’t eat most of them today — however, it was these meals that kept America going.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the oddest recipes to come out of the Great Depression. Remember, people were working with what was available to them and ingredients that could be bought for cheap.
These aren’t the most appetizing of meals, but even so, many of them have been handed down through generations and are still made by those who know of the hardships their parents and grandparents faced throughout the ’30s. We should be proud of our ancestors for making it through a decade of financial turmoil and coming out on the other side, not necessarily unscathed, but having learned what hard work and determination can do to help one achieve the “American Dream.”
Now tuck your napkin into your collar, because it’s time to dive into the strangest meals to come out of the Depression era.
1. Creamed Chip Beef
Creamed chip beef looks about as appetizing at it sounds. Also served during both World Wars, creamed chip beef was (and still is in some parts of America) made with dried beef that was rehydrated in a roux of butter, flour, and milk.
Served on a piece of toast, creamed chip beef is also lovingly called “Shit on a Shingle” or “Save Our Stomachs” — “SOS” for short. It’s still served at some breakfast places in the Mid-Atlantic today.
2. Mulligan Stew
Mulligan stew was reportedly first created by the homeless population during the Depression and was a total mish-mosh of whatever food the neighborhood had. The homeless would come together around a campfire and throw together their bits and bobs in a big pot to make Mulligan stew. Sometimes this included sawdust and lint, which supposedly made the stew more filling. Today, it looks more like a traditional vegetable stew with carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, and beef.
3. Balogna Casserole
When meat was too expensive during the Depression, people turned to balogna to get the protein they needed. For that reason, bologna casseroles became popular in many households. Made with bacon, peppers, onion, canned pork and beans, canned chili and beans, cheddar cheese, and of course, bologna, this casserole recipe was hearty and had flavor — and that’s saying a lot for Depression-era meals.
4. Poorman’s Meal
In 2007, 91-year-old Clara, who had to quit high school during the Depression because her family couldn’t afford socks, showed the world how to make Poorman’s Meal. It’s a fried potato-based meal served with diced hotdogs. Clara said her mother would cook potatoes with everything and anything because they were hearty. However, at a dollar a sack, they weren’t cheap.
5. Hot Water Pie
Emmy from the emmymadeinjapan YouTube channel made this hot water pie from a recipe sent in from a viewer whose grandmother used to make it during the Depression. And just like the name suggests, hot water pie is made from simple ingredients like butter, sugar, and flour for the crust, and butter, sugar, eggs, and boiling water for the custard filling. It’s simple, yet sweet, and certainly easy to make.
6. Jell-O Ice Cream
Raspberry Jell-O mixed with sugar, milk, vanilla extract, and whipped heavy cream, reportedly comes together to make a no-churn ice cream, according to a Depression-era recipe from 1938. Glen from the Glen & Friends Cooking YouTube channel tried it out. Although it can’t compare to today’s ice cream varieties, he admits that during the Depression, it would have been a real treat for those who were used to the bare minimum.
7. Hoover Stew
Similar to macaroni with hot dogs, our modern-day guilty pleasure, Hoover Stew was made with macaroni, canned tomatoes, hot dogs, and canned corn or beans. It was named after President Hoover, who took office right before the financial crash of 1929, and was mostly enjoyed by families in shanty towns.
8. Egg Drop Soup
Clara’s Depression egg drop soup is nothing like the stuff you get at your favorite Chinese restaurant. Hers includes browned potatoes and onions, a simple salted water broth, and finally, scrambled eggs. Just before serving it atop a piece of crusty bread, Clara works some parmesan cheese into the soup.
9. Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions
According to Homestead Survival Site, peanut butter-stuffed onions were recommended to students by home economics teachers during the Great Depression. To make this delicacy, simply bake an onion, remove the inner parts of it, and stuff it with peanut butter. And no, this doesn’t taste good. Surprise!
10. Dandelion Salad
Yup, that’s right. People would go out to their front lawns and pick dandelion greens for dandelion salad. In this video, Clara explains the fiddly process of cleaning up the greens and making them ready to eat in the above video. She dresses the greens with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. And TBH, it doesn’t look too bad.
11. Garbage Plate
Still found at diners located in Rochester, New York, the Garbage Plate is a mashup of macaroni salad, home fries and/or baked beans, and sausage or cheeseburger, topped with a beef chili, white onions, mustard, and ketchup or hot sauce. Emmy from emmymadeinjapan made a version and, although it’s an odd mix of flavors, said that the garbage plate is “not too bad.”
12. Cooked Bread
As Clara from Great Depression Cooking said in the above 2009 YouTube video, cooked bread was something you made when your existing loaf of bread was too hard to do anything else with. Cut the hard bread into slices, and then pour olive oil and salt onto the slices. Then pour boiling water over the bread, making sure the slices are soaked. Mash the bread up and eat.
13. Cabbage and Dumplings
The title explains it all — just cabbage and dumplings. Jaime from YouTube’s Guildbrook Farm — Off Grid Living shows us how to make her grandmother’s cabbage and dumplings meal in the above video. It’s as basic as basic can get, yet very yummy. Cabbage and onions are fried in a cast iron pan and paired with homemade egg and flour dumplings. It’s “not the prettiest of dishes,” Jamie admits — but it’s tasty and nutritious.
14. Amish Cold Milk Soup
According to Kevin Williams on YouTube, this dish is a staple in Amish households, and was especially so during the Great Depression. Think cereal without the cereal. Cold Milk Soup is simply milk, bananas, and sugar, served cold on a summer day.
15. Mock Apple Pie
“Mock” anything makes us skeptical, as it should. And this pie is definitely something to be skeptical about. Instead of real apples, Depression-era mock apple pie uses Ritz crackers as an apple filling alternative. Um — yikes. Emmy from the emmymadeinjapan YouTube channel tried the recipe out, and she couldn’t believe how apple-y (and delicious) mock apple pie actually is.
16. Rabbit Stew and Dumplings
As Deep South Homestead from YouTube writes in the description of their rabbit stew and dumplings video, this meal would be the final meal one could make from rabbit meat. The first night, one would bake the rabbit. The second and third nights’ dinners would be a rabbit meat stir-fry. And finally, dumplings with rabbit stew would be prepared and last for however many days it could sit in the fridge. It’s all about stretching what ingredients you have.
17. Vinegar Pie
Similar to the hot water pie, vinegar pie used apple cider vinegar in the filling. Martha Stewart’s site claims it was first invented during the days of covered wagons, when fresh produce was a scarcity. And when fresh produce was scarce again in the early 1900s, the vinegar pie made a comeback — and actually, hasn’t left.
18. Prune Pudding
We can thank Eleanor Roosevelt for making prune pudding a go-to treat during the Depression. She famously persuaded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve prune pudding to White House guests. Prunes stored for much longer than fresh fruits and were less expensive than other fruits used for puddings and pie fillings.
19. Breakfast Sugar Cookies
Usually Clara said she and her family would eat bread and butter with coffee for breakfast every morning. But her mother used to make sugar cookies for breakfast on Sundays. The cookies were simply made with eggs, sugar, and flour, and the kids usually got more condensed milk than they did coffee. Sometimes, they would also indulge in wafer cookies along with their homemade sugar cookies.
20. Peanut Butter and Mayo Sandwich
As Garden & Gun reports, the peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich took hold of America in the 1930s, during the peak of the Depression. Every household had the two staple items — mayo and peanut butter — and the sour, nutty, concoction was filled with enough protein and provided enough sustenance to keep families going.
21. Peanut Butter and Pickle Sandwich
Just like PB&Mayo sandwiches, peanut butter and pickle sandwiches were also a Depression lunch counter staple. Again, they were cheap to make and some may even say they’re pretty tasty. In fact, The New York Times investigated the legend that is the PB&P and found that some enthusiasts still eat the sammy and have their preferences when it comes to the pickles.
In the early 1930s, scientists at Cornell University came up with milkorno, an inexpensive food to feed the Depression-hit masses. It’s a mixture of dried milk powder and cornmeal, and could be eaten as a gruel-like oatmeal or worked into recipes like those kept at the Cornell University library.
23. “Anything” Loaves
When families couldn’t afford the meat that went into traditional meat loaves, they put together “anything” loaves that were basically whipped up from whatever was on hand. Nuts, raisins, leftovers, and bread were packed into loaves that served as supper for families who needed to pinch pennies.
24. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
Yup, the same Kraft mac and cheese that conjures up the feeling of childhood nostalgia also helped many families survive the Depression. Kraft, which introduced its mac and cheese in 1937, sold 8 million boxes during its first year. Each box contained four servings, making it a cheap meal that was easy to make (and delicious).
25. Boiled Carrots and Spaghetti
Unfortunately, this meal from the Depression era would not look as beautiful as the carrots and spaghetti dish above. According to culinary historians Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe, coauthors of A Square Meal, Depression-era spaghetti was boiled for a good 25 minutes — you know, to make it nice and mushy. As were the boiled carrots, for that matter.
“Then you make white sauce,” Coe told San Francisco’s local public radio, KALW, “which was the sauce which is poured over everything for budget meals during the Great Depression. It’s a mixture of milk, flour, salt and either butter or margarine, with maybe a little bit of pepper…You mix all these ingredients into a tray and bake it, and you have a kind of like thick, mushy, bland casserole.”
“Bland is really the operative word here,” Coe continued. “It does not have much flavor, and it wasn’t really supposed to have much flavor. What it was was a vehicle for nutrition and nutrients, but it wasn’t supposed to make you excited about food.”
26. Milk, Milk, and More Milk
School lunches became a thing at the beginning of the 20th century. Progressives wanted to help children from poor families by providing them with at least one nutritious meal per day. But when the Depression hit, it wasn’t just poor kids who were hungry. The middle class children were also arriving to school with growling bellies.
A typical school lunch in New York public schools consisted of “pea soup without milk; Italian spaghetti with onion and tomato sauce; white rolls, buttered,” according to Ziegelnan. “For dessert, chocolate pudding served with milk. You’ll notice that milk comes up again and again in these menus, because of the tremendous importance that nutritionists placed on milk.”
In fact, kids were advised by the government to drink up to a quart of milk per day. It was thought to be a superfood of sorts, and was definitely more filling than water.
27. “Plain” Pizza
Clara said that when her mother used to make bread, she’d save a piece of the bread dough to make pizza for dinner that night. But the kind of pizza Clara and her family ate during the Depression looked nothing like the pizza we’re used to today. Clara said that they used to eat their pizza “plain,” which meant the dough would be rolled out, cooked, and then topped with a bit of butter. They couldn’t afford the sauce and cheese, “but we were happy with the plain pizza,” Clara said.
However, now being able to afford all the “good stuff,” Clara makes her pizza with tomato sauce, anchovies, mozzarella, and basil.
28. Poor Man’s Boiled Cake
This cake doesn’t contain any eggs, butter, or milk, yet somehow it still tastes alright. Emmy from emmymadeinjapan found this recipe in the book A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove by Laura Schenone, and made it for her Hard Times series. It uses lard as the fat, and is spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. For the most part, it tastes like a spice cake, and according to the woman who lent the recipe to the book, it “somehow tastes like the Great Depression.”
29. Chop Suey
This American chop suey from 1938 was popular with families in the Northeast and is a mish-mosh of ground beef, macaroni (or, in this case, rice and macaroni), and tomato sauce. Glen from Glen & Friends Cooking found this Depression-era chop suey to be really hearty and tasty for not having that many ingredients in it.
Sure, some of these Great Depression recipes haven’t stood the test of time. But back then, they were favorites among families who needed to keep things cheap, yet nutritious. And for that, we have to give their creators a lot of credit.