What were the most popular Great Depression meals?
Do you know?
With all the talk about food storage and growing our own food, I did a little digging around to find out what food people ate during America’s Great Depression of the 1930s.
Surprisingly, a few of these were made by my mother and grandmother, traditions, I’m sure, from those frugal years. Cookbooks like this one document many of these meals.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for Chipped Beef on Toast!
Table of contents
- Great Depression Meals
- Lessons Learned From These Great Depression Meals
- Nutrition in Depression-era Meals
- More Interesting Facts about Depression-era Food
- Check out these Great Depression cookbooks:
As you read this list, you’ll notice how simple and basic they are.
Sandwiches are featured prominently, which is a reminder of how important it is to have bread-making skills. It makes sense for fresh bread to be a key component of a Great Depression menu when you think about the cost. A single loaf of homemade bread might cost much less if you could buy and stock up on staple ingredients like flour, yeast, and salt.
Frugality meant survival.
In addition, the Great Depression was followed by World War Two when many food items were rationed. As a result, this way of approaching meals and cooking influenced multiple generations.
But remember that the limited availability of food happens for many reasons. Therefore we should be prepared because we don’t know what might cause it for us.
Great Depression Meals
How many of these are familiar to you, and do you have any others to add to the list?
- Milk toast
- Chipped beef on toast
- Cucumber and mustard sandwiches
- Mayonnaise sandwiches
- Ketchup sandwiches
- Lard sandwiches
- Bacon grease sandwiches
- Sugar sandwiches
- Onion sandwich – slices of onion between bread
- Butter and sugar sandwiches
- Fried potato peel sandwiches
- Tomato sandwiches
- American cheese sandwich: ‘American’ cheese was invented because it was cheap to make and didn’t require refrigeration which many people who lived during this era didn’t have.
- Squirrel — Here are how-to instructions for field dressing a squirrel.
- Whatever fish or game you could catch/hunt
- Chicken feet in broth
- Deep-fried chicken skin
Soups and Salads
Soups were easy to stretch to feed more people by adding water.
- Potato soup – water base, not milk
- Dandelion greens salad
- Bean soup
- Rag soup: spinach, broth, and lots of macaroni
Foods on Bread or Toast, With Gravy/Sauce, or Both
- Tomato gravy and biscuits
- Gravy and bread – as a main dish
- Toast with mashed potatoes on top with gravy
- Creamed corn on toast
- One-eyed Sam – a piece of bread with an over-easy egg in the center
- Tomato gravy on rice
- Toast with milk gravy
- Warm canned tomatoes with bread
- Sliced boiled pork liver on buttered toast (liver sliced with a potato peeler)
- Fried potato and bread cubes
- Hard-boiled eggs in white sauce over rice
- Oatmeal mixed with lard
- Corn mush with milk for breakfast, fried corn mush for dinner
- Butter and grits with sugar and milk
- Runny eggs with grits
- Cornmeal mush
Foods in Milk
- Cornbread in milk was a favorite Great Depression meal.
- Rice in milk with some sugar
- Banana slices with powdered sugar and milk
- Popcorn with milk and sugar – ate it like cereal
- Hot milk and rice
- Fried potatoes and hot dogs
- Water fried pancakes
- Fried bologna
- Garbanzo beans fried in chicken fat or lard, salted, and eaten cold
Noodle and/or Bean Dishes
- Hot dogs and baked beans
- Spaghetti with tomato juice and navy beans
- Spam and noodles with cream of mushroom soup
Other Depression-Era Meals
- Corn pone — Check out this recipe.
- Boiled cabbage
- Hamburger mixed with oatmeal
- Water pie
- Vinegar pie
- Baked apples
- Depression cake
Lessons Learned From These Great Depression Meals
Here are some of my takeaways from this list:
- Some foods that would normally have not been eaten became commonplace at the kitchen table.
- Stock up on ingredients for bread, including buckets of wheat, and know how to make different types of bread. Bread, in some form, is one of the main ingredients for many of these meals. Since I get a lot of questions about the types of wheat I use in my own cooking and food storage, check out my wheat tutorial here to learn more.
- Keep chickens around as a source of meat and eggs, and if possible, have a cow or goat for milk.
- Know how to make many different foods from scratch. Otherwise, the first three don’t make as much sense.
- Stock the right food (for you) and store it the right way. Many people start stocking up on food but aren’t sure if they are storing the right food, the right way, or what the right way is. Consequently, their food storage doesn’t serve its purpose well. Whether for Great Depression meals or not, no one wants to buy food storage, just to have it go bad because it wasn’t stored correctly. Therefore, learn exactly what to store and how to store it here! And if you want to get started with the basic building blocks of food storage, these are the top 10 foods I recommend.
- Cultivate a garden to provide at least some fresh produce, and plant fruit trees and bushes. You may be interested in this article with tips for Planning an Edible Landscape.
- Don’t waste anything, even chicken feet!
- Develop a survival mindset, a critical skill we all need to cultivate.
- Save fat, lard, and bacon grease.
- Tasty food doesn’t have to require expensive ingredients.
How many of these things do you think you could incorporate into your daily life? Or what about some of this great depression wisdom?Lessons learned from the Great Depression? Don't waste anything, not even chicken feet! Click To Tweet
Nutrition in Depression-era Meals
As you can imagine, good nutrition was a distant memory as subsistence diets became the norm for many. Consequently, malnutrition and the accompanying vitamin deficiencies were prevalent. This article from the archives discusses how people tried to maintain their health during the Depression.
More Interesting Facts about Depression-era Food
- Until it was pointed out by Jane Ziedgelman and Andrew Cole, authors of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, I hadn’t realized something that was staring me in the face when I look at pictures of depression-era breadlines. There are never any women in them. Have you noticed that? Turns out women made up about 25% of the workforce, and when layoffs happened, they got the ax first. And breadlines were a “distinctly male institution” with decidedly rough edges. Respectable women wouldn’t frequent a breadline.
- As eye-raising as some of the foods on this list may sound to us today, we also gained Kraft Macaroni and Cheese; it officially launched in 1937. Kids everywhere now rejoice over the cheesy carbohydrate wonder.
- Loaves were popular because you could make the ingredients stretch farther. Beyond the traditional meatloaf that still graces tables today, there were also versions made from lima beans and liver.
- Creators William Dreyer and Joseph Edy named Rocky Road ice cream following the stock market crash in 1929. They hoped to make people smile during tough times.
- Refrigerator ownership increased from 8% to almost 50%. However, that still means 50% of homes DIDN’T have refrigeration.
Check out these Great Depression cookbooks:
These books are a good place to start if you’d like to learn more about what people did to survive that difficult time.
- Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression
- Hard Times Cookbook
- Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression
In tough times, when a square meal is a memory, people become resourceful, inventive, and creative about finding frugal ways to stretch food supplies. And they limited waste. These meals are evidence of that and of people’s determination to survive.
How many of these depression-era meals have you eaten?
Updated; originally published 6/7/19.