Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What the Great Depression Can Teach Us About Food and Frugality

“The most vivid memory I have of food is that there was never enough. … I remember one dinner where my mother, myself and my brothers and sister sat down to a meal. The meal consisted of three boiled potatoes and one slice of white bread which we divided up amongst us. I noticed my mother was not eating and I asked her why she was not eating. She answered that she was on a diet.” –Laura C. Rinfret

Unemployment was up in every state in December. The Dow Jones closed just below 8000 today. The words “Hoover,” “breadline,” and “I just sold my teeth to pay the rent,” decorate the news with alarming frequency.

These are all indications of one thing: the economy’s taking the express train to Crapville, and we need to brace ourselves for the ride. While few expect the U.S. to bottom out Iceland-style, many are buckling down for some of the worst fiduciary times since the 1930s.

Fortunately, as we prep for the presumably tough years ahead, there are lessons to be learned from past hardships, the hugest of which was undoubtedly the Great Depression. No other generations had it tougher than our grandparents and great-grandparents, who struggled to find work, sacrificed to keep their families going, and cut costs anyway they knew how. For many, this usually involved the grocery bill.

What follows, then, are a few food ideas from the olden days, gathered from a variety of articles, posts, and online accounts of the Depression. Please feel free to add your own elders’ methods in the comment section.

And now, in no particular order…

Don’t panic.
Sure, things were bad. Real bad. Bad enough that a quarter of all eligible Americans were out of work. Still, very, very few people starved during the Depression. Rural and Dust Bowl families had it the worst, and would often go hungry (see: The Grapes of Wrath), but it was never a matter of country-wide food supplies totally running out. According to one source, those earning less than $2 per week were still getting around 2500 calories per day. Even better, says author Harvey Levenstein, “there [was] no indication, in mortality and other statistics, of an overall deterioration in the health of the nation.” There may be tough times in the future, but ultimately, we’ll survive.

Don’t look to mainstream media for guidance.
During the Depression, lifestyle magazines tended to gloss over the fact that there WAS a Depression. In her book Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, author Sylvia Lovegren claims they “never mentioned the terrible plight of many of their readers and only occasionally ran a feature on economical meals.” While today’s mainstream magazines and television seem a bit more in tune with the times, they're still primarily for escapism. So, it remains up to the individual to seek out reliable information on his or her own.

Talk to your grandparents.
Quick, while they’re still around. When it comes to learning about the Depression, there’s no better resource than those who were there. Dial up Nana, send a letter to Pappy, and start your inquiries. Beyond the obvious tips and tricks you’ll receive, odds are they’ll enjoy the chance to connect, reminisce, and pass on the memories - even the not-so-good stuff.

The worst of times tend to bring out the best in Americans, and it was no different in 1929. asserts, “Soup kitchens … charitable organizations (religious groups, Ladies Aid Societies, Salvation Army, etc.), community service groups, government agencies, companies, and private individuals,” all pitched in to keep their neighbors from starving. In the age of Obama, we can do wonderful things by following their lead.

Share and share alike.
Church dinners, women’s clubs, and family get-togethers soared during the ‘30s, because they were easy, inexpensive ways of both entertaining and sharing food. “Hostesses gave luncheons, teas, and cozy Sunday Night Suppers around the chafing dish,” says Lovegren. Plus, “the Thirties also ushered in an era of women's clubs--whether dedicated to charitable activities, gardening, or the fine art of bridge.” The lesson: grab some friends and get a potluck going. You’ll have a stellar time and won’t even realize you’re saving cash.

Learn to support yourself now.
It was true then, and blogs like Wise Bread claim it’s still true today: “Pretty much anything is cheaper if you do it yourself, from home repair to cooking meals.” Feeding yourself healthfully and cheaply is a learned skill, and something that we, as a society, could brush up on a bit. Perhaps we could take a note from 89-year-old Rosalie Schnierle who reminisces in the Chicago Sun Times, "Everything was homemade. There was a lot of cooking. There was a lot of baking."

Save, preserve, and stock up.
A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, our rural brothers and sisters would pickle, jar, can, and preserve until the cows came home. (If, in fact, there were any cows left.) It’s a lost art these days, with most of us living in cities and suburbs. Still, we have the storage and technology to fill our pantries with frugal, long-lasting food to take us into the next season. And if you’re interested in the pickling and such? The skill can be reclaimed with a little research.

Concentrate on one-dish meals.
During the ‘30s, say the folks at Wessels Living History Farm, “home economists taught women how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast or waffles. Chili, macaroni and cheese, soups, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular meals.” Comparatively inexpensive, one-dish dinners can pack in an entire meal’s worth of vitamins and minerals in … well, one dish. To quote Ms. Martha, it’s a good thing.

Love leftovers.
Back in the day, leftovers (provided there were any) were key components of the coming week’s meals. Mary MacVean of the LA Times states, “It was a time when leftovers were planned. A roast chicken -- for Jewish Shabbat or Sunday dinner -- lasted for days, as chicken with rice, chicken and dumplings, pot pie, stew or soup or salad.” Always keep it in mind: making big portions of every meal will ensure you eat for days after.

Embrace soups and starches.
As simply put by, “Throughout time, in almost every culture and cuisine, soups and have been the primary foods consumed by people with not much money.” Frugal, stretchable, and easy to make, it’s the meal of choice for lean times. Bread, potatoes, and pasta exist along the same lines. For those in need, they’re lifesavers.

Do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Cheaper cuts of meat, simpler meal preparations, and creative combinations drove the cuisine of the early ‘30s. And while “baked bean sandwiches,” and “liver and bacon” (favorites of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) might not be particularly appealing, there are hundreds of recipe ideas and resources in the library and online for those who look.

And if all else fails …

Join the mob.
According to The New York Times, Al Capone’s soup kitchens fed hungry people better than any others of its day: "Three meals are served each day, including Sundays. Breakfast consists of coffee and a sweet roll, and dinner and supper of soup, bread and coffee, with a second or third helping permitted." This might be a good time to call Tony Soprano and ask if he’s recruiting.

Folks – ideas? Do tell.

*Photos and more extensive citations coming Thursday.*

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Daniel said...

Kris, I thought this was one of your finest posts ever.

I'd definitely agree that with a extra little creative thinking, anybody can feed themselves for very little money. And the traditional media is unlikely to do this thinking for you. Fortunately, in this era there are blogs like yours that fill the gap!

Casual Kitchen

Emily said...

I love the community eating idea. Every Monday, 4 to 5 moms get together at my house and bring all the leftovers from their weekend. We eat, then swap out with each other. It's neat because we clean out our fridges, and have the opportunity to taste something we may not have tried before (this week, one mom who is married to a Scotsman, brought roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, and really expanded our horizons), and we socialize and sometimes craft or coupon. A real lifesaver for a lonely stay-at-home mom. :)

DMBY said...

Thanks Kris, this is a very real, down to earth post.

I'd also like to remind peeps that there are families struggling in that way even when the country is at its best. . .growing up, mine was one of them. I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, and I remember a dish that my mom called 'goulash' - it was minute rice, canned corn, browned hamburger, with a jar of brown gravy. I thought it tasted great at the time, and I had no idea it meant we were poor!

NEC said...

Wow, what a lovely post. This was really timely as I've been thinking about ties into the Great Depression as far as our New Depression goes.

The whole baking from scratch thing really does save so much money- because even if you do end up paying 10 bucks for the meal- it can stretch over 3 or 4 meals if it is lasagna or something.

This isn't my blog, but I thought you would enjoy reading it- her pictures are beautiful and she has great vegetarian stuff:

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

I've spent many an afternoon on the phone with gram or at the sewing table with her, talking about growing up in the Depression. One thing she learned that never left her, even though she's now in her seventies: there is nothing so small that it is not worth saving. Only two bites of oatmeal left? Don't toss them, stir them into tomorrow's breakfast. Only a tiny scrap of fabric left? Could be the perfect color to patch a favorite pair of pants in the future. We as a nation have become obsessed with clearing clutter and buying fashionable things. When the ability to buy is taken away, we can better see what it means to own something, care for it and be resourceful when satisfying our needs. Thanks, Grandma.


Allison said...

What a well-written and informative article! It makes me think about how communities drift apart when there is wealth, and come together in times of need. I wish we could maintain that sense of community in times of prosperity, but it seems we become more competitive, individualistic and status-oriented when we have excess money.

Tamara said...

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without
--Brigham Young

Cynthia said...

Kris, I sunk down in the first few sentences, perhaps partially out of denial? But by the end of your post, I felt calm and even comforted. Being reminded that it's happened before and that we can indeed do this in the way you presented it made reading your post time very, very well spent. This is a post I'll return to.

Funny about Money said...

LOL! Baked bean sandwiches are actually delicious! My mother used to make those...matter of fact, I haven't had one in years. Believe I'll cook up some Boston baked beans next weekend. Yum!

Trust me: urban folks did go hungry. My parents, who lived in San Francisco during the Depression, went for ten days on nothing but oranges and pancakes. Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend's parents, who lived in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, subsisted largely on wild game.

The problem with canning produce and with stocking up on stuff is that most dwellings today don't have enough storage to keep all that stuff. My great-grandmother's little two-bedroom bungalow in Berkeley had a vast kitchen with ceiling-to-floor cabinetry on all the walls, plus a separate unheated service porch that also contained storage space. My four-bedroom house has a galley kitchen with barely enough cabinetry to hold my dishes and a few pots and pans. And the guy who sold me this place lamented that his brand-new palace in the suburbs had lots less storage than this house!

Although I installed extra storage cabinets in the garage, no way would I store food out there in 115-degree heat. In the bad old days, most of the population who were not rural lived in cooler climates; the decades since the Great Depression have seen a wholesale migration into warmer parts of the country. You can't store potatoes and you can't put down eggs in isinglass unless you have a (cool!) potato cellar.

Monroe on a budget said...

Interesting point about the lifestyle magazines of the day. But I think they were deliberately aiming for the upper class ... in hopes of selling ads.

Anonymous said...

"Learn to support yourself now" section should also include growing things in your garden. Fruit trees, vegetables, and if possible (protein-type) beans.

Thanks for a great blog.

Cristie said...

I too am pinching pennies. Being a single mom with two kids and working in a low-paying job is definitely challenging for me right now. I appreciate the words of wisdom in your post. I like that you began your recommendations with "Don't Panic". Panic only blurs the solutions. As you wrote, ways to economically prepare food do exist. We just need to re-discover them. We may even eat healthier as a result. We may also re-discover our need for each other as we give food support to our neighbors. In return we will receive great joy and a feeling of belonging to a caring community. Hard times need not be bad times.

Anonymous said...

What an awesome post! The links back to the source material make it even better.

Carrie said...

included in my best of feb 2009

NorthernTexan said...

In the age of suburbia everyone can do something to help themselves survive the paycheck a little farther. I am a organic farmer and we can produce 12000 lbs of food on a 1/4 acre lot. I know I can think of a few things that everyone can do. Chickens, three chickens (just hens) will eat all of your kitchen scraps and turn them into eggs and compost for you. A dog kennel and a small dog house and you have a chicken pen.
go one day a week without meat. Learn how to cook vegetarian meals or make three meals with one chicken.
Garden, even a small garden plot or bucket tomatoes , container gardens. One tomato plant can give up to 40 lbs of tomatoes in a season... at 2 dollars a pound you have alot of savings on just tomatoes . one squash plant will bless you with more squash than most people want to eat in a season. The leftovers feed the chickens or can them up.
Herbs, basil , oregano and thyme look beautiful in landscaping. oh and you can use the hens compost to fertilize the garden.
Collect rain water... learn to use it to water your lawn the garden wash your car etc. it is so easy to do and water will become scarcer water bills will go up.. learn now to use rainwater.
recycle! it only takes a minute to sort glass, plastic metal into bins.. it is amazing how many uses there are for soda bottles. There are so many things we can do to make ourselves more resilient we just need to implement them.
This said we milk our own goats, eat our own beef, pork and chicken and garden and it pays well to do these things for others at a profit. Not everyone can be on this level but we had gardens in a subdivision and chickens in the city before we started a full scale operation.

Samantha S. said...

Leftovers and DIY are one the best ideas. We very rarely eat out and ALWAYS eat leftovers.
Great post!!