How People Fed Their Families During The Great Depression

How People Fed Their Families During The Great Depression
Shelah A Johnson

Shelah A Johnson

The recipient of 9 awards from The Society for Technical Communication, is also a published photographer and has produced and directed more than 40 lifestyle broadcast segments focused on eco and small space living.

A lesson for today

The Great Depression caused a significant shift in how most people lived, not only in the United States but worldwide. It changed how they dressed, how they worked, how they saved… and even how they ate. With so many families struggling to afford basic living costs, how did people feed themselves and their families? The answer: by getting creative and doing whatever they could to ensure that there was dinner on the table in the evening.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the innovative ways that people worldwide, impacted by the Great Depression, kept food on the table during the Depression.

“Mock” Recipes Made for Cheaper Meals

Prices for pantry staples stayed accessible during the Depression. Essential items like flour, salt, and eggs were generally considered affordable for most families. However, additional foods- especially meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables- could be significantly more expensive, especially for those who did not have the space to grow a garden or raise their own livestock. This is where “mock” recipes came into play.

These recipes sought to recreate the taste of meals that used now-expensive ingredients by replacing them with cheaper options. For instance, a recipe for mock apple pie using Ritz crackers (yes, really!) and spice flavorings became very popular in this era.

Stretched Dishes–How Casseroles and Stews Became Staple Dishes

Have you ever wondered why America seems to be in love with casseroles? It all comes back to the Great Depression when casseroles and similar “throw it all together” recipes became essential for families to stretch ingredients further. Casseroles, stews, and similar dishes were ideal for families who needed to feed multiple children. Or who needed to stretch one dinner into two or three.

For example, a dish made with beef and vegetables could be stretched much further by adding noodles and cream baked in a casserole dish. Rice and other carbs were also popular during this era.

Unusual Food Combinations

“You eat what you have.” During the Great Depression, people ate what they could afford and found on the shelves. Sometimes, this resulted in recipes that used rather unusual food combinations for the time. Recipes might call for mixing cheaper meats, such as hot dogs with rice and vegetables, or simply throwing “everything but the kitchen sink” into a casserole dish or stew pot.

Notably, some of these recipes remain popular in certain regions today. One such recipe is Hoover stew. Hoover stew was made with tomatoes, sliced hot dogs, and macaroni noodles. It was a way to combine accessible, albeit unusual, ingredients while stretching them with noodles to feed larger families. Or make multiple meals out of a few ingredients.

Communal Meals

Another way that people fed their families during the Depression was by attending communal meals as much as possible. These communal meals could be run by churches or neighborhood groups. Or they could be simply friends getting together to share dishes so that everyone had enough to eat.

Cooking Fuel

The cost and accessibility of food were not the only issues facing a hungry family. Cooking fuel was an added expense, especially for those living in urban areas. For those who were living in rural areas, they could often find wood or animal dung was used. If families had a vehicle, such as the international flatbed truck used by the Hornbeck in the book Perpetual Gloom, food could be cooked on the engine – which is easier than you might think.

Final Thoughts

With the increase in higher food costs, many families today can relate to the challenges and struggles of those who lived during the Great Depress. And like them, we will also do whatever to stretch our pantries to put dinner on the table every night.

One of the advantages we have over prior generations is our access to shared ideas. Taste Atlas gives readers a glimpse of how the rest of the world eats, with dozens of inspiring ideas on how you can up your casserole game.


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