The Great Depression, which lasted in the United States from 1929 to 1939, was a time of intense scarcity.
Jobs, money, and food were in short supply, so people had to reinvent their menus to survive the prolonged economic downturn.
Food that people wouldn’t have earlier considered eating was silently gobbled down as they made do with what was readily available.
These culinary experiments later came to be known as “Depression-Era Cuisine.”
Here are ten bizarre yet popular foods that made up Depression-Era Cuisine.
1. Prune Pudding
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, an early proponent of the home economics movement, whipped up nutritious and inexpensive meals she discovered at Cornell University’s Home Economics Department.
During the Depression, she made her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, eat prune pudding, especially when guests were around.
Prunes were cheap, easily available, easily stored, and therefore a mainstay during the Great Depression. So, prune pudding became a quick and easy substitute for fresh fruits, pies, and other desserts.
All this simple and delicious dessert needed were prunes, sugar, and egg whites whipped together.
2. Creamed Chip Beef
Also humorously called “shit on a shingle” or “save our stomachs” (SOS), creamed chip beef was a staple during both World Wars and the Great Depression.
This strange dish has its roots in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
It was whipped up with salted and dried beef, flour, butter, and milk before being served on a piece of toast.
People also added parsley and pepper to the mix if they had some on hand while substituting beef for cheaper meat like goats or wild game. The dish is still served today at certain restaurants and diners in the Mid-Atlantic.
3. Corned Beef Luncheon Salad
Corned beef luncheon salad was another common beef dish during the Great Depression.
It was made with canned corned beef, canned corn, canned peas, gelatin, lemon juice, and vinegar, which were set in a bowl or Jello mold in the refrigerator. It sometimes also featured mayonnaise, eggs, horseradish, and other vegetables.
4. Hoover Stew
Hoover Stew is a Depression-era Cuisine staple named after United States President Herbert Hoover, whom many Americans blamed for the Great Depression.
Popular in soup kitchens then, this cheap stew was a thin broth consisting of sliced hot dog rounds, cooked macaroni, canned tomatoes, and canned corn, beans, or peas.
5. Dandelion Salad
The Great Depression saw people frequently scavenging in their backyards for wild, fresh, edible greens that they could use in cooking.
Dandelions were typical produce, so Italian immigrant women in New York City would add this nutritious ingredient to salads, creating a free meal.
They would forage and mix these bitter greens with sweet or tangy ingredients to balance the flavor.
They usually added whatever they had on hand: olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, cooked white beans, bacon bits, bacon grease, lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and pepper.
6. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
In 1937, when the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression, Kraft Foods launched the iconic Mac and Cheese. The company sold eight million boxes of the boxed product within a year of its debut.
This easy-to-make packaged dish came with a bag of dried pasta and a packet of powdered cheese. Costing 19 cents, it served four people and was an inexpensive and quick way to feed a family.
This Depression-era meal is popular even today, not only in households in the country but worldwide.
7. Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions
During the Depression, onions were a common and easily grown and stored vegetable. So, they were readily available and, most importantly, free.
Meanwhile, peanut butter was also inexpensive. So, the Bureau of Home Economics devised the recipe for peanut butter-stuffed onions as an easy way for American homemakers to feed their families.
The recipe for this curious dish was published in many 1930s newspapers and magazines. It eventually found its way onto American dining tables as a healthy, tasty, simple, and low-cost meal that could be served any time of the day.
The mishmash consisted of baked onions with peanut butter filling mixed with stale bread crumbs. These ingredients came together and created a distasteful and disliked dish that people only ate to fill their hungry stomachs.
Loaves were another mainstay during the Depression. They were usually made from cheap ingredients but would feature a star ingredient that served as the highlight of the meal. Some popular types of Depression-era loaves were liver loaf, lima bean, and peanut loaf.
If people wanted to splurge, they would make an authentic meatloaf and pad it with inexpensive ingredients like crackers or bread. Then, by adding canned soup and ketchup, homemakers could give the dish some extra flavor without costing too much.
9. Vinegar Pie
Pie recipes from the 1930s usually tried to recreate fruit pies, like apple pies without fruits which were hard to come by. Instead, they substituted vinegar for the tartness of fruits and lemons. One popular vinegar-based treat was vinegar pie, also called vinegar cobbler or Desperation Pie.
People created this low-cost dessert with a pie crust filled with apple cider vinegar, flour, unsalted butter, salt, brown sugar, eggs, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, cloves, and water.
It looked and tasted like custard with a sweet and tangy flavor while leaving a tingling sensation on the roof of people’s mouths.
10. Mock Apple Pie
Another standard dessert during the Great Depression was the mock apple pie. This pie recipe also tried to mimic the flavor of apples using cheaper ingredients in its filling.
A mock apple pie was technically a pastry imposter, as it had no apples. Instead, it used crumbled Ritz crackers, lemon juice, cinnamon, butter, and sugar syrup as humble substitutes for apple pie filling. These ingredients were stuffed in a pie crust and then baked.
The crackers’ unique texture, rich buttery flavor, and other ingredients created a taste that reminded people of apple pies. This made it a Depression-era favorite.
Though the Depression was a challenging time for our country, it’s pretty amazing to see how people adapted and got creative for survival.