During the years immediately following World War I, the United States enjoyed great economic prosperity and people lived extravagant lifestyles. Food was plentiful, and the worry that accompanies hard times seemed far in the past. Then the Great Depression of the 1930s hit, and families were left scrambling just to put food on the table. Hard work and a determined spirit were often the only things that got them through those tough times. As men struggled to find jobs, women were called upon to be miracle workers, feeding their large families with the barest of ingredients.
Almost every household had some form of a garden. Small backyard plots provided the family with potatoes and fresh vegetables. Chickens or rabbits were raised for eggs and meat in pens located right next to the garden area, so that the manure could be used to fertilize the vegetables. Children tended the animals, helped with the harvest, and preserved the food they grew. Back then, if you did not work, you did not eat.
Dishes were, by necessity, very plain. Absolutely nothing was wasted, and the food was stretched as far as it would go. Sometimes, families would “hunt and gather” in the woods. Wild produce often provided the evening meal. For instance, fried blooms off the locust tree was considered “survival food.” Wild greens and mushrooms added flavor to soups, and small squirrels and rabbits provided the meat for many casseroles and stews.
If you were lucky enough to own a farm during the Depression, more than likely you found yourself better off than others. Most working farms had fresh meat and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Surplus food could be sold or traded for necessities. Food, a basic necessity of life, became more valuable than “luxuries.”
The American government tried to help. They provided commodities to military veterans, and many of those families made it through the rough times of the 1930’s on cheese, syrup, canned meat, vegetables, milk, coffee, sugar, rice, beans, and yellow grits. The ones that received aid were considered lucky to have the free food, though the menu grew monotonous.
Despite the fact that most food served at the time was grown at home, it was during the Great Depression that some of today’s favorite convenience foods were introduced. Ritz Crackers, Kool-Aid, and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, all became popular during that time.
Various cookbooks have been published that detail first-hand accounts of the times, and the recipes that were served. One such book “Dining During the Depression” by Karen Thibodeau, provides a fascinating glimpse into the past, and if studied, can give us ideas how to stretch our own dollars a little further.