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More Than Bread Alone
Food and The Great Depression

by Lynn Kerrigan

 
"Often the number of meals was cut from three to two a day. Guests were no longer invited for dinner. Milk consumption was reduced, fresh fruit virtually disappeared, eggs took the place of meat, drippings stood in for butter. Families fell back on their historic staples: pasta and beans for Italian-Americans, corn meal for Southern blacks and whites, and beans and pancakes for Northern native-born whites. The most common complaint was about the monotony of these diets; that the fruits, meats and delicacies that added variety had disappeared." —Harvey Levenstein. Paradox of Plenty. A Social History of Eating in Modern America. (New York, Oxford Univ. Press. 1993)

Food riots broke out in small towns across America as hungry crowds shouted "We want food. We will not let our children starve." Severe drought dried up crops over much of the South. Alabama sharecroppers got by on their 3M diet-meat (salt-pork) corn meal and molasses. Al Capone opened a Chicago breadline. America is shocked to hear about people fighting for rotten food in St. Louis garbage dumps. An Appalachian coal miner's luncheon often consisted of beans and "bulldog gravy" (flour, water and grease), accompanied by a "water sandwich" (stale bread soaked in lard and water). One Appalachian food-saving strategy had the children eat on alternate days. People are evicted from their homes for non-payment of rent. Shantytowns comprised of large crates sprouted in large cities to house the booming homeless population. 90,000 businesses failed completely. 15 million people lost their jobs. The ones who were lucky enough to keep working saw their wages cut in half. 20,000 people committed suicide. 10,000 banks collapsed, losing 2 million dollars in deposits. The economic catastrophe known as The Great Depression and its impact on life defies description.

 

I don't know what it's like to go hungry. I have only known food abundance-and sad to say, even waste. There are still times I think nothing of throwing a bruised piece of fruit in the trash and heavens forbid if the lettuce hatches too many rust spots because it too often rises to vegetable heaven.

So when I began to read about the Depression, I came away a bit more humble and a heap more grateful for the bounty I enjoy.

History shows that an amazing thing happened to ordinary people who had always been able to put food on the table and who suddenly found themselves toting a bucket to a soup kitchen. The potent instinct to survive together with the optimistic hope that things would get better compelled those who lost everything they had, to matter-of-factly pick up their lives and start all over again. They made do with what they had.

The Depression is usually not branded as a time of culinary creativity. Meal makers were concerned more with providing substance than whipping up a Pillsbury Bake-off winner. However, making do with what few ingredients they could afford makes the Depression significant in culinary history. No time before or since has food been as simple or basic as then.

"Even though my Daddy couldn't find work and my mother took in sewing for extra money, we never starved because Grandpa was a fisherman and restaurants continued to buy from him." Says Maude Page, ten years old at the height of the Depression. "There wasn't much money for convenience foods. For instance, my mother used to make some pretty delicious casseroles using canned goods, but canned goods were one of the things we couldn't afford during that time. Most everything we'd store bought before, like cookies and bread, was cheaper to make from scratch. There was a whole lot of baking going on during those days."

"Every Saturday night we'd have hotdogs and beans. Except for an occasional roast from Grandpa or a traded chicken from next door, we only had meat-hotdogs once a week.

"The one thing we missed the most was fresh fruit. The only time the scent and taste of an orange graced our table was at Christmas. Every year we'd find an orange tucked in the toe of our stockings. We considered it a great treat."

 

Depression Era Recipes:

Soup Kitchen Potato Soup

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup chopped carrots
  • 1/2 cup oleo
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 medium or 6 small cubed potatoes

Sauté minced onion in 1/2 cup oleo. Add carrots, celery and 2 cups water. Boil 15 minutes. Add cubed potatoes. Cook until potatoes are tender. Add more water if needed.

 

Bread Line Stew

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 3 large carrots
  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 2 large green peppers, sliced
  • 1 large head cabbage

Brown ground beef; drain fat. Add sliced onions and green pepper. with vegetable peeler, shave cleaned carrots into the mixture. Slice cabbage thin and add to pot. Cook over medium heat until vegetables are done. Serve with applesauce and crusty bread.

 

Copyright 1997 Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.

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