When the stock market crashed in October 1929, the Great Depression began; it lasted until WWII. You may remember seeing pictures of people lined up at soup kitchens or on bread lines. Maybe your grandparents lived through the Great Depression, and they told you stories about how they suffered in different ways. How and what Americans ate also changed since all of a sudden a large portion of Americans could no longer afford good nutritious food.
Some people ate the food that they were served in soup kitchens and bread lines, which was only enough to keep them from starving, and the food served was not tasty or pleasurable at all. Poverty forced people to get creative with the food they made, including making apple or blueberry pies that had no fruit in them at all.
Cookbooks that had special recipes for people who were forced to cook with few ingredients were printed; even simple staples like sugar, salt, and pepper were hard to come by for many. So what did they eat? These are some of the most common meals that people ate during the Depression era.
Prunes are cheap and can last a long time before they spoil so they became a common ingredient for people unable to afford fresh fruit. Prune Pudding became popular thanks to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who made her husband eat the dessert every day as a way to show solidarity with the average American. Prunes aren’t the most delicious of fruits, so those who could afford sugar and eggs added them for flavor.
Creamed Chip Beef (SOS)
Dried meat is a cheaper alternative to fresh meat, and during the Great Depression, it became necessary not just for the price but also because it could be stored for a longer period of time. Creamed Chip Beef became a popular dish that used dried beef, flour, butter, and milk and then served on a slice of bread.
The dish wasn’t known for its good flavor though, since it earned the nickname SOS, which meant either “sh$t on a shingle” or “save our stomachs”. SOS is also a universal code for an emergency at sea, and though the ingredients were readily available and affordable, it was not a dish anyone would willingly choose if they had the option to eat something else.
President Herbert Hoover was president when the Great Depression began, and many Americans blamed him for the economic downfall of the country. Homeless encampments sprung up all over the country and were called Hoovervilles in honor of the man many blamed for losing their homes.
The communities that lived in Hoovervilles made soup for everyone, but it was a thin soup that used basic ingredients like hot dogs, macaroni, and whatever canned vegetables could be found. Having homeless encampments and a disgusting soup named after him probably didn’t help him during the 1932 election where Franklin Roosevelt won in a landslide.
For many Americans who lived in cities, it was impossible to start a garden like others who had yards in the suburbs. So, without access to yards to grow their fruits and vegetables, urban Americans were left to forage in empty lots or public parks. Dandelions grow almost everywhere, so it became a common item to forage, and many Depression-era recipes used dandelions as a key ingredient. It’s not the tastiest or hardiest of greens, which is why you never see it in a salad today, but in the 1930s, people were desperate.
If there is one thing that Americans have always loved, it is pie. The saying “As American as apple pie” exists because pies, especially apple, blueberry, peach, and cherry pies are the best. However, during The Depression, it was very difficult to afford enough apples, blueberries, peaches, or cherries to make a pie, but Americans could not live without dessert. So, substitutions were made to mimic a fruit pie.
One recipe was Vinegar Pie, which used apple cider vinegar, flour, butter, salt, and other simple ingredients. It sort of tasted like apple pie but was only eaten when real apples weren’t available. It was also called Desperation Pie, so it wasn’t something people were clamoring to eat every week. There was also Mock Apple Pie, which used crumbled crackers, lemon juice, cinnamon, butter, and syrup as filling. Though there were no apples involved, it tasted good enough to forget that it was fruitless.
Macaroni and Cheese
One Depression-era food that is still around today is Mac and cheese. Today everybody loves to eat some macaroni pasta covered in thick, creamy cheese. Whether it is homemade or out of a box, it is an American favorite. What many people don’t know is that it was invented in the 1930s as a cheap way to feed a family.
Today, it is an easy meal for kids or even broke college students, but during The Depression, it was meant to feed a whole family with just one box. Even though the economy would not improve until the 1940s, companies were looking for ways to profit from the meager food options and created cheap boxed meals that families could use when fresh ingredients were unavailable.
Kraft Foods began selling a box of dried macaroni pasta with powdered cheese that cost only 19 cents. It sold 8 million boxes in the first year, and even after The Depression ended and America became prosperous, it is one of the few food items that Americans continued to eat.