Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Many scenes of parents, children, and others struggling daily to gather enough food to eat played out during the lean years of the Great Depression. After the stock market crash of 1929, the American economy plummeted. Thousands of people lost their jobs. At this point in U.S. society, most families relied on the man to work and provide a source of income, while the mother cared for children and the household. With many men now out of work, it often became difficult for families to support themselves. Parents struggled to cut corners to make ends meet. Men, women, and at times even children, took on what jobs they could find and used all the means available to them to stretch their resources to their limits.
Imagine being the teenage son in a West Virginia coal miner’s family. Your dad lost his job more than a year ago. You take turns with your sister eating, meaning you eat every other day. You hunt for dandelions on the hills with your mother. Dandelions, cornmeal cakes, and hog lard can make a feast. You worry about your dad, who has been unable to find another job and seems to have lost hope.
An unemployed factory worker and father during the Depression may have stayed away from home at mealtime so as not to eat the food his children needed. Instead, he may have gone to wait patiently in a breadline with hundreds of other men for a meal of soup, bread, and coffee. He and those waiting with him had no thought of turning the line into a protest demonstration. Many men felt that they were responsible for providing for their families, and some may even have felt that they were to blame for the problems that had befallen them.
A middle-class mother whose family income was greatly reduced due to the Depression still needed to find ways to provide her family with satisfying meals that fulfilled basic food needs. She would “make do” using a limited number of foodstuffs kept in the pantry, grown in the garden, or perhaps obtained from the local butcher or even a chain food store. Creative cooks could make a pot roast last as a base for meals for the entire week. Meal portions were stretched with the inclusion of gravy, potatoes, biscuits, and macaroni. Newly famous cooks and their cookbooks, such as Fannie Farmer’sThe Boston Cooking School Cookbook and Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, helped mothers and others struggling to put food on the table plan simple, nutritious meals. It was not uncommon for families to invite those less fortunate for Sunday dinner.
Imagine that you are a grandfather or grandmother who works diligently growing food in the garden and canning in the kitchen to help out your family. The colorful array of fruit and vegetable jars lined up on the pantry shelves is a constant source of pride for you through the winter months. You are thankful you do not live in the Midwest Dust Bowl, where gardens are drying up.
Stories like these played out across America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Breadlines, “making do,” and subsistence gardens were all part of the Depression food culture. Most families—the 70 to 75 percent that still had income—were able to “make do,” but the faces and stories of the desperately hungry made lasting impressions on all Americans. As quickly as it could, the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) created government relief agencies to distribute surplus farm foods to the needy. Food programs stemming from the creation of these relief agencies persist into the twenty-first century. Food Stamps and the protections of the Food and Drug Administration are two examples of programs that sprung from events of the 1930s Depression.
Breadlines, relief agencies, and “making do,” however, were not the whole story of the struggle for sustenance during the Depression. A host of new processed foods were introduced during the decade. The American entrepreneur, always ready to try something new in hopes of making more money for a better living, developed inexpensive, quality foods such as meat in a can. Fun, cheap snacks, such as fried corn chips or spongy little cakes with a filling, were also created. Increasing numbers of food chain stores stocked the mass-marketed, processed foods. Food entrepreneurs became millionaires during the Depression, and people searching to get the most out of what money they had were able to purchase inexpensive foods.
The short and long term health implications of those unemployed and eating at soup kitchens, or even for those simply cutting back on some necessities to make budgets stretch, has been little explored or recorded. Larger health concerns came from the poor sanitary conditions in overcrowded city slums and rural shanties. Nutrition actually improved for those who could still afford the new innovations for the kitchen, such as modern refrigerators and the new products available in the markets. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the 1930s for most Americans was their diligence in eating every last bite on their plate.
The Desperately Hungry
Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, factories began to close. Many workers lost their jobs. The newly unemployed looked on helplessly as their resources dried up and their families went hungry. Between 1929 and 1933, unemployment steadily grew from only 3.2 percent of the labor force in 1929, to 8.7 percent in 1930, almost 16 percent in 1931, over 23 percent in 1932, and 25 percent in 1933. More than 4.3 million people were unemployed in 1930. At the height of the Depression, about 13 to 15 million individuals were unemployed, many for the first time in their lives. It became difficult for many families to “make do.”
As people’s diets deteriorated, malnutrition became more common. Thousands lined up at soup kitchens and in breadlines in quiet desperation. The term “soup kitchen” was originally applied to army kitchens in the mid-nineteenth century, but by the later nineteenth century was applied to kitchens of charitable organizations where free soup and bread were served to the poor and unemployed. A common feature of the Great Depression, soup kitchens have continued in the United States into the twenty-first century, but they often are officially known by other names, such as emergency food programs. The term breadline, on the other hand, was not a familiar term in the United States until 1900. Breadlines became more of a unique feature of the Great Depression as people lined up on city sidewalks to receive loaves of bread and other food from charitable organizations.
The prevailing belief of the 1930s, known as the American Creed, was that people were responsible for their own fates. During the Depression there existed a denial or general lack of recognition of the national, social, or economic forces that could be affecting millions of people despite their own individual actions or skills. A strong social stigma was therefore attached to going to soup kitchens or breadlines for assistance. According to the creed, being needy meant that some serious character flaw existed.
Assisting Those in Need
Handouts were simple but filling—stew and bread; soup, bread and coffee; beans, bread and coffee; or sandwiches and coffee. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, Catholic charities, fraternal orders, hospitals, newspapers, and individuals operated the breadlines. One of the most famous soup kitchens opened on South State Street in Chicago in 1930. Run by gangster Al Capone, it served three meals a day. On Thanksgiving Day of 1930 alone, Capone’s kitchen served five thousand meals. By early 1931 New York City had 82 breadlines, serving approximately eighty-five thousand meals each day.
Most Americans remained employed, though perhaps at decreased wages, but the increasing visibility of breadlines, soup kitchens, shanty towns, and homeless brought alarm to the nation. Many of those still following more normal daily routines soberly considered that it could soon be them standing in relief lines if the economic conditions deteriorated further. So, although those experiencing various degrees of hunger were less than one-fourth of the work force, their plight was highly visible and unsettling to many of the rest. The upper class still enjoyed fine cuisine, and the broad middle and working classes were able to avoid breadlines, despite the need to make some adjustments to their diets.
As people were unable to find new work and unemployment increased, so did hunger. The social thinking of the time was that private charity should care for the hungry. President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933) and state governors urged Americans to donate to the Red Cross and to other charitable organizations. Local county authorities were responsible for any government relief efforts and, during the winter of 1931-1932, some states made grants to local authorities to help handle costs. All of these efforts, however, proved to be inadequate.
One interesting aspect of the unemployment and hunger problems during the Depression was that, as historic photographs show, there were very few women in the cities’ breadlines. Standing for hours in long lines for food assistance was more a man’s role, while the wife tended to home and children. A strong social stigma also existed regarding women standing in relief lines. Author Meridel Le Sueur’s dramatic description in her book Women on the Breadlines (1984), highlights this social phenomenon:
.…[T]oo timid to get in breadlines… they simply faint on the street from privations [deprived of food], without saying a word to anyone. A woman will shut herself up in a room until it is taken away from her, and eat a cracker a day and be as quiet as a mouse so there are no social statistics concerning her… unless she has dependents, [she] will go for weeks verging on starvation.…
Fending Off Starvation
In New York City in 1931, 95 cases of death (men, women, and children) due to starvation were reported. The undernourished also fell victim to diseases more easily than those with access to adequate food supplies. At the time there was no way to calculate the number of people who died from malnutrition-related diseases such as tuberculosis and dysentery.
Sad and desperate stories were reported across the nation. In 1930 a Pennsylvania man caught stealing a loaf of bread for his four hungry children felt so ashamed that he hung himself in his basement. Fathers kept themselves and older children out of their living quarters when younger children were fed to avoid being tempted to literally grab food from the mouths of babies. Children took turns eating from day to day and stayed in bed to conserve calories. The systematic stealing of food was sometimes a family affair, with children and adults assigned certain shoplifting duties for necessary foods. Investigations of city garbage dumps revealed in Chicago and New York City that, when city garbage trucks unloaded, forty to fifty people would begin digging with sticks or hands for morsels of food. Men fought over the garbage in barrels behind city restaurants. People scoured ship docks for any edible scraps.
Food riots erupted in several states. Unemployed Virginia miners smashed shop windows, filled baskets with food, and fought their way back out onto the street. Hundreds of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, who had been put off of the land they had worked but did not own, marched into England, Arkansas. They harassed Red Cross officials until enough food was handed out to satisfy them. A group of Minneapolis working class women broke windows of a store and raided the shelves, but left notes saying they would pay as soon as they could. Similar food riots occurred in Michigan, Oklahoma, and in San Francisco, California.
Some of the most desperate rural areas were the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, where milk was considered medicine by some. The rural hungry searched for such wild greens as dandelions. Ground corncobs, cornmeal, and hog lard (fat) rounded out their meals. The family with a cow who gave milk had a precious possession.
The Paradox of Food and Hunger
By 1933 statistics revealed that at least 25 percent of the labor force was unemployed—13 to 15 million individuals. It was estimated that those unemployed were responsible for feeding approximately 30 million hungry family members. As the situation worsened, a paradox arose in America. While the destitute ate their meals at garbage cans, American farmers still produced surpluses of crops and livestock.
Farmers, however, were not completely unaffected. They suffered as prices for their goods fell drastically low due to consumers’ inability to pay for the goods they demanded. The market for farmers’ goods shrunk, but farming production did not. Additionally, no efficient structure existed to get surpluses into the hands of charitable organizations and local government agencies.
In California the hungry saw food being destroyed all around them. In 1932, in the Imperial Valley alone, 2.8 million watermelons, 1.4 million crates of cantaloupes, and 700,000 lugs of tomatoes were destroyed because they could not be sold. In Orange County, huge mounds of oranges were covered with thick oil to stop pilfering. The fruit rotted in full view of people who needed them.
The Government Responds
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had taken office in March 1933, introduced a broad range of federal programs designed to bring relief and economic recovery to a struggling nation. The term New Deal came from Roosevelt’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in June 1932 and came to represent a whole new way that government responded to the needs of its citizens. The broad range of legislation and federal programs through most of the 1930s would touch just about every aspect of peoples’ daily lives.
During the first one hundred days of his administration, from March to June 1933, President Roosevelt pushed through Congress an amazing amount of legislation. This period would mark the beginning of the New Deal. In the third month of that period, on May 12, Roosevelt signed into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The law created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The AAA was not directly designed to help feed the needy but rather to help farmers get better prices for their crops and reduce their growing surpluses of produce. Combined with other programs, however, the AAA would provide the foodstuffs that other agencies could distribute to the hungry.
Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)
More directly aimed at hunger relief was another act Roosevelt signed on May 12 creating the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). FERA was created to provide several avenues of relief, including cash payments directly to city and state work relief programs. FERA also tackled federal work projects such as building hospitals, roads, and bridges, and helped states that had already begun such projects. Presidential support of existing local relief programs would sustain ongoing food relief projects and the works program would put money in the hands of the unemployed to purchase food. Roosevelt appointed Harry L. Hopkins to head FERA. He directed Hopkins to relieve suffering as quickly as possible and to ignore local and state politicians who tried to control the relief process.
Oddly, the AAA and the FERA had almost opposite missions. The AAA was designed to reduce food supplies in order to increase farm prices. FERA was designed to provide immediate relief to the needy including the hungry. A link was needed between the two programs.
Federal Surplus Relief Corporation
In September 1933 President Roosevelt channeled $75 million to FERA to purchase surplus food. Four weeks later, Jerome Frank, a lawyer appointed as counsel for the AAA, established the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC). The FSRC’s president would be Harry L. Hopkins, who continued to serve as head of FERA.
The FSRC would operate as a subsidiary of FERA, serving as a go-between for FERA and the AAA. The FSRC’s purpose was to direct relief for the hungry. It took agricultural surpluses—pork, butter, flour, syrup, and cotton among others—and transported them to state emergency relief officials, who directed them into the hands of the needy. After considerable success in November 1935, the FSRC closed as it had been designed to do in the original legislation. Its success and the continuing need for food distribution led quickly to further action. Agricultural and relief officials arranged to continue the food distribution program by creating the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC). The FSCC would continue the effort of purchasing surplus food from farmers to distribute to the hungry and needy. The FSRC’s chief legacy was that it began a pattern of federal food distribution. Its program was a primary example of New Deal humanitarian concern. The FSCC food programs led to the later twentieth century programs of school lunches and food stamps.
Food Stamp Plan
The FSCC established the first Food Stamp Plan on May 16, 1939, to continue to provide surplus agricultural products to the needy. The Food Stamp Plan’s goals were to improve the diets of those in need and create an increased demand for various foods. It was hoped the increased demand for foods would raise the incomes of farmers.
To participate in the plan, individuals had to be enrolled in relief programs, Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers, or other needy people specifically identified by relief agencies. Participants could purchase “orange stamps” in amounts roughly equal to their normal expenditure for food. Many purchased between $1.00 and $1.50 worth of “orange stamps” for each family member for each week. For every $1.00 in orange stamps purchased, they received 50¢ worth of “blue stamps” as a bonus. The blue stamps could only be used to buy agricultural goods declared as surplus by the Secretary of Agriculture.
The plan was established in one hundred cities by 1940. Approximately four million people participated in this experimental program while it existed. Industrial mobilization in preparation for World War II (1939-1945), however, soon brought full employment as well as the elimination of food surpluses. As a result, the food stamp program was cancelled but revived again by 1961. Through the remainder of the twentieth century, the food stamp program remained the primary means for the government to provide food assistance to the low-income and needy citizens. It continued to lessen farm surplus problems while improving the diets of people in poverty.
Although the plight of the desperately poor and hungry made lasting impressions on all Americans, 70 to 75 percent of families still had income and concentrated on “making do.” During the Depression years of the 1930s, women worked hard to meet their families’ basic food needs. Meals had simple ingredients and were filling. These basic foods are described below.
As food historians and ordinary Americans look back on the Depression years, they frequently use the terms “creative” or “resourceful” to describe the cooking of mothers and grandmothers who found ways to make satisfying fare out of some unusual ingredients. Nothing edible was ever thrown out or wasted. Leftovers always reappeared over the next few days. Sunday’s roast would be Monday’s stew, or hash, then Tuesday’s vegetable beef soup, and so on. Liquid from jars or cans of vegetables became a base for soup, and juice from canned fruit could be thickened and poured over bread and cakes. Indeed, homemakers found many ways to “make do.”
Eggs provided an important source of protein for Depression families and were an important item when “making do.” Eggs from the hen house were always plentiful. Even when the weather became too hot for crops, the hens continued to scratch for seed and bugs, and they kept laying eggs. Chickens were kept not only on farms but also in suburban back yards. Both rural and urban women learned to use eggs in every imaginable way. Eggs were “dropped” (into boiling water), scrambled, beaten into omelets, used in a variety of breads and cakes, mixed into meat, potato and onion dishes, and used for pasta making.
Another product that remained popular during the Depression was coffee. In the late 1920s and early 1930s coffee overproduction in South America caused coffee prices to slide downward. In the United States the price of coffee fell from 22¢ per pound to 8¢ per pound. Despite the lower costs, many people still could not spend 8¢ on the luxury of coffee or, if they did, they found ways to make it last by mixing it with other ingredients. For example, roasted wheat kernels could be mixed with coffee as a coffee extender or could be substituted entirely and perked as if they were the real thing. An “extender” is any foodstuff added to another to make it last longer.
Tea also maintained its popularity. A popular tea at the time was hot lemon water. Lemon tea also served as a common remedy for a cough and the congestion of a cold. Another favorite treat was an occasional cup of hot chocolate made from cocoa powder, sugar, canned milk, and hot water.
Casseroles proved to be popular and filling fare at Depression tables. A handful of this, plus some leftovers of that, and a family could be fed a nourishing and filling meal. Casseroles were budget stretchers, as more homemade noodles, potatoes, rice, onions, beans, and/or vegetables could be added to stretch the life of the casserole.
Although recipes appeared in cookbooks as early as the late nineteenth century, food historians point to the Depression as the point in time where the popularization of macaroni and cheese casserole occurred. It was filling, easy to make, and cheap. Kraft foods introduced its packaged seven-minute elbow macaroni and cheese dinner in the 1930s. Boxed macaroni and cheese dinners continued to provide economical meals throughout the twentieth century.
Cracklings are the by-product of rendered lard, or fat, and were commonly used in households where meals were feeling the pinch of lean economic times. To render lard means to cook lard for a long time. The lard is then put into a press and squeezed. The result is called crackling. As a menu extender, crackling could be mixed with bread or potatoes. Sometimes it was mixed with flour, baked on a cookie sheet, and eaten as a bread substitute.
Buttermilk was considered to be a staple food during the Depression. Women used it for everything from breakfast pancakes to breads and biscuits to buttermilk soup to simply drinking it. Farmers even used it for livestock feed. Butter was often churned at home, and the by-product was buttermilk. The buttermilk was chilled in an icebox, a cellar, or hung in a pail in the well and served as a beverage with meals. If a family couldn’t churn it themselves, they took a bucket and purchased it at the local creamery. Creameries, however, often gave buttermilk away for free. In baking, buttermilk made everything lighter, moister, and added a delicious flavor. Buttermilk nutritionally compares with modern low-fat yogurt.
In Depression homes soup was served warm and was often thick and nutritious. Big families could be fed with soups from leftover meats, beans, and home-grown vegetables. Homemakers made many varieties of soup from available foods. The results included split pea, chicken-rice, potato-onion, bean, hamburger, and all vegetable. Dumplings were a filling addition to complement the soup. For some families, soup was the evening meal every night.
Beans—navy, pinto, white, black-eyed—were a good substitute for meat during the Depression and were even an actual lifesaver in the 1930s. Highly nutritious, beans of all varieties were baked, used as fillers for sandwiches, made into bean cakes, and included as chief ingredients in hardy soups. Boston baked beans were navy beans baked with molasses and leftover bacon, ham, or salt pork. Bean sandwiches consisted of bread spread with cooked beans and a slice of tomato and lettuce, if available. Bean cakes were mashed beans mixed with flour and fried in lard.
Bread in the Depression
By 1932 a bag of flour sold for 16¢, down almost 40 percent in the three years since the stock market crash of 1929. A loaf of bread sold for 5 to 10¢, compared to its pre-Depression price of 7¢. Bread was a vital part of keeping a family fed. Everyone tried to keep flour and cornmeal in the pantry. With these two staples a family could always have something to eat. If no butter was available, cooks would spread lard on bread. Bread was frequently served with toppings, including honey, corn syrup, or fruit syrups. Fruit syrups were often intended by the cook to be jelly, but for lack of enough sugar turned out runny and hence were pronounced syrups. A variety of breads were filling items at every meal. Biscuits would be used for breakfast with honey or syrup, as sandwich bread for lunch, or with gravy poured over them for dinner.
Johnny cake and corn bread were standard bread favorites. According to Patricia R. Wagner in Depression Era Recipes, Johnny cake, a descendent of recipes from England, got its name from the eastern United States. It tasted like sweet corn bread. United States. Since the cake kept well, men would take it along when traveling. New Englanders don’t always pronounce the letter “R” when it falls in the middle of a sentence, so “journey cake” became “jou’ney cake,” and eventually “johnny cake.”
Midwestern and southwestern cornbread, slightly less rich than Johnny cake, was a direct descendent of Indian ashcake. Ashcake was mixture of cornmeal and water, formed into cakes, and baked in the cinders of prairie camp fires.
Homemakers always tried to have plenty of fresh-baked bread on hand during the Depression. Loaves of white or whole wheat bread were often prepared in batches, with perhaps the last loaf used for cinnamon rolls for children coming home from school. Another favorite variation of bread was the dumpling. Dumplings were made of eggs and flour, then boiled in water.
Meat was more of a scarcity and was not served at every Depression meal. When used, it was often combined with potatoes, onions, rice, macaroni, biscuits, and other extenders. “Loafs” were popular meat stretchers and remained prevalent on dinner tables into the twenty-first century. Sunday meatloaf was made with ground beef; salmon loaf with cannon salmon; ham loaf, made with ground pork, was popular in southern states; and venison loaf was prepared in areas with abundant deer.
Families living near hunting and fishing sources were able to supplement their Depression era diets with highly desirable meat sources. Game included deer, squirrels, ground hogs, raccoons, and rabbits. Rabbits were eaten by so many people that they were dubbed “Hoover Hogs,” after President Herbert Hoover. Fish fries were popular in areas where lakes and rivers could be fished. Fresh fish were seasoned, rolled in a flour-milk batter, and fried in lard.
In areas of the west where cattle and hogs remained plentiful, families felt the effects of the Depression less. The first freeze of the season meant it was time to butcher a cow or hog. Homemakers would can part of the meat, and the rest would be wrapped in paper and frozen outside until needed.
Putting meat into the family diet of the inner city poor called for innovative measures. Too ashamed and self-conscious of their plight, Chicago parents would send their children to the butcher for bones for the make-believe family dog. The butcher would give them large meaty bones that made a filling soup. The meat would be saved for the next day’s hash. Of course, the make-believe family cat also got hungry so the kids went back to the butcher for liver. Liver, onions, potatoes, and gravy made for a hearty meal.
Another butcher by-product to be dealt with cleverly was bundles of chicken feet. Boiling chicken feet with greens, which could be obtained even in the city, resulted in a good pot of soup. The feet were discarded before serving, but the leftover broth was good for cooking cereal products such as farina and cracked wheat.
Fried chicken was a Sunday dinner main course for many families during Depression times. If you neither raised chickens nor had any money to buy one, you could substitute with the recipe “City Chickens,” shared by Beverly Carman of Broadway, New Jersey, in Karen Thibodeau’s book Dining During the Depression. City chickens were ground veal and pork, shaped around Popsicle sticks into the form of drum-sticks, rolled in cornflakes, and fried and baked until golden brown.
Many families of the 1930s say their gardens got them through the Depression. Gardens were tended on farms, in suburban backyards, and in vacant lots and parks in the cities. Produce was eaten fresh or “put up,” meaning it was canned, pickled, or dried. Much of the same produce found in contemporary gardens was also planted in Depression gardens. The difference between the two is that Depression gardens were most often a means of survival, while contemporary gardens are largely hobbies. Common vegetables planted during the Depression were potatoes, onions, corn, beans, cabbage, beets, peas, cucumbers, green peppers, carrots, turnips, greens such as spinach, turnips, celery, and, in the warmer southern states, black-eyed peas and okra.
When readied for the table, in addition to being eaten raw, vegetables were boiled, baked, fried, stewed, or creamed. A bit of salt pork or bacon was frequently used for flavoring. Vegetables were chief ingredients in soups and casseroles.
Between 1933 and 1937, much of America’s heartland suffered drought and severe dust storms. The season of spring, with its nurturing rainfall, could no longer be depended upon. In the event that spring remained a dry season, precious water had to be hauled in from lakes and rivers to grow crops. Many gardens failed. Although wild greens became quite popular in many areas, they became survival food for those in drought areas. Unemployed miners and their families in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, ate wild greens to stave off hunger. Dandelions were gathered and cooked with bacon or side pork. Together with eggs and potatoes, if available, a wholesome dinner could be prepared.
Making Do at Breakfast
Breakfast was the meal most likely to be skipped by many in the Depression. Sometimes coffee, tea, or hot milk was breakfast. Cereals were generally cooked, as oatmeal, with raisins added as a special treat. Corn was plentiful and ground into cornmeal. Cornmeal mush was served plain, fried, or with milk and syrup.
Milk toast, another favorite Depression breakfast, included old bread or toast, sugar and cinnamon, and warm milk poured over. If no milk was available, coffee was used. Buttermilk pancakes were also cheap, filling, and very popular.
The custom of taking dessert at the end of a meal continued through the Depression for many families. What kind of dessert was served often depended on where you lived. Those on farms not affected by the severe drought in the southern Great Plains region generally had lots of eggs, milk, butter, and cream for custards and puddings. Many city residents, however, found eggs and cream too scarce to use on an everyday basis. Rice, raisins, and milk became the pudding of the city. Many city residents received bags of rice and raisins from government surplus. In regions such as the Northwest, where fruits and berries grew abundantly, desserts such as berry cobblers and baked pears were daily treats. Pies could be made with fruit and other handy items, using substituted ingredients—sour cream for butter; honey or brown sugar for white sugar; even Ritz crackers in place of apples. Sour cream raisin pies were a favorite. Substitutions like these were common. For instance, if there was no sour cream on hand, one tablespoon of vinegar added to milk produced a good substitute.
As more cooks acquired electric mixers, chiffon pies—pumpkin, lemon, chocolate, pineapple—became the rage. All began with a gelatin “custard” and were topped with fluffy, stiffly beaten egg whites.
A delicious pie made from ingredients usually found in the kitchen was chess pie, a southern favorite. There are two reported stories as to how it got its name: (1) when children came home from school they asked their mom what she was baking. “Jess’ pie” she replied. “Jess’ pie” became chess pie; and (2) the pie’s ingredients allowed it to be kept in a pie chest for days, hence chess pie.
Americans’ love of cake did not diminish during the Depression. Fueled by the arrival of both the electric range and the mixer, cake baking continued. Perhaps no other type of recipe was more experimented with due to scarcity of ingredients, however, than the cake recipe. Some cakes were for very special occasions, and others were for filling up stomachs. Depression cakes, especially those baked by urban residents, often cut back dramatically on milk, eggs, and butter. An example was the “milkless, eggless, butterless cake,” with main ingredients consisting of brown sugar and flour. This cake was likely developed during the shortages of World War I (1914-1918). In fact, other recipe books called it “war cake.” Sugar was the cheapest, quickest form of energy, and it was saved for the soldiers. Cooks at home learned to use brown sugar, molasses, corn syrup, or honey for sweeteners. For butter they substituted lard, which generally came from bacon fat or rendered chicken fat. The same basic recipe resurfaced as Depression cake in the 1930s, and again as wartime cake during World War II.
For the chocolate lovers there was the 1937 chocolate mayonnaise cake, invented by the wife of a Hellmann’s mayonnaise company salesman. The recipe substituted Hellmann’s mayonnaise for butter and milk. Another interesting twist on ingredients for Depression era cakes was the relatively common cinnamon mystery cake, which included the contents of a can of tomato soup, and the gum drop fruit cake. Applesauce cake was yet another way to use ingredients from the pantry and cut down on eggs, sugar, and butter. At the other end of the spectrum was the decadent Lady Baltimore cake, an old Charleston, South Carolina, recipe full of eggs, butter, sugar, milk, and a nutty filling. It was served in the homes of the wealthy, fine restaurants, and the middle class enjoyed it on very special occasions.
To top off a cake, the simple seven-minute icing appeared in the 1930s, and its popularity coincided with the introduction of the electric mixer. The icing is made with sugar, water, a dash of salt, egg whites beaten about seven minutes until stiff, and vanilla. Seven-minute icing survived well past the Depression.
No discussion of Depression cake could be complete without mention of the Hostess Twinkie. Introduced in 1930, the creme-filled sponge cake cost one nickel and delighted young and old. As of the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remained a popular snack food.
Finally, Depression era children pooled their pennies to buy the 5¢ twin Popsicle that had been introduced earlier in 1924. They pulled it apart to share, then checked the stick to see if it had “free” stamped on it. If so, they got another Popsicle for free. The Popsicle sticks went home for mothers to use or were used in other creative ways by the children.
During the 1920s many Americans sought employment opportunities in the central cities, but chose to live in the suburbs. Suburban gardening flourished. Popular garden magazines struggled with such dilemmas as how to garden without stable manure. Newspapers added gardening as a regular feature of their weekend editions. Many affluent and leisured Americans of the 1920s, however, ceased to rely on their gardens for a chief food source. Instead, they drove their Oldsmobile or Model T to the local store for food. Yet the small town and country poor still grew food to preserve their standard of living. Homemakers in rural areas depended on their gardens to supply large amounts of their food. Through preparing fresh dishes and preserving food, everything that grew in their gardens was used.
After 1929 the hard times of the Depression turned many of the newly affluent, the middle class, and the rapidly increasing numbers of unemployed back to their gardens. With country clubs, restaurants, and travel beyond the family budget, Americans in suburbia could still pick up their gardening tools. Whether as a rediscovered simple pastime, or as sustenance for the family, vegetable gardening regained widespread popularity.
“Back to the land” movements, supported by President Roosevelt and his administration, became popular. Roosevelt and others firmly believed the human spirit could best prosper in the country and not in the city. Many middle-class persons who still lived in the central cities of the Northeast, disillusioned seeing the urban breadlines, fled to the country seeking the security of food and shelter. They were determined to try their hand at subsistence farming. In the first three years of the 1930s, more than one million central city residents moved to country homesteads. Some were able to adequately survive with their new rural lifestyle, but most failed and suffered economically along with their city peers.
For those left in the cities, subsistence gardening reemerged to help the unemployed. In Detroit, Michigan, employees made monthly contributions from their salaries to raise $10,000 to finance a free garden program. The city plowed up school property and vacant lots, creating five thousand garden plots. Across America, from California to Maine, welfare garden plots blossomed as a means of supplying food and work for the unemployed. By 1934 seventy thousand subsistence gardens yielded approximately $2.8 million worth of food to persons on relief. New York City, by 1935, had welfare garden plots in every borough except Manhattan, to feed both the bodies and spirits of the poor. At the close of the 1930s, the looming world war continued to fuel the popularity of gardening. With the outbreak of war in Europe during 1939, although food shortages were no longer prevalent in America, gardening continued to offer psychological comfort to Americans.
Preserving the Garden’s Harvest
Food from the 1930s garden was never wasted. Canning, pickling, and drying were the preserving practices of choice for both rural and suburban residents. Mildred B. relayed her experiences in canning during the Depression in Thacker’s Recipes and Remembrances of the Great Depression (1993):
We canned corn and tomatoes. You poured boiling water over the tomatoes and the skins slipped right off. The corn had to be cut off the cobs with the big butcher knife and I hated that part. My hands would ache by the end of the day. But it was worth it. Those half gallon jars of yellow corn and red tomatoes sure looked good setting on the shelves of the fruit cellar.
Green beans—commonly referred to as string beans during the Depression—and cut corn were the commonly canned vegetables. Even greens such as dandelion leaves, spinach, Swiss chard, and collards were regularly canned. Fruit such as peaches, pears, tomatoes, and cherries, and berries including strawberries, blackberries, elderberries, raspberries, goose-berries, and currants, kept summer and fall canners busy.
Thick canning syrups of sugar and water were prepared and poured in jars with the fruit and berries. Especially popular were spicy peaches with brown sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. Proudly placed in the pantry or fruit cellar, spicy peaches appeared on Sunday dinner tables and at holidays. Jellies made from fruit and berries and apple butter filled every extra jar. In colder states vegetables that didn’t can well could be stored outside between layers of soil and straw through the winter.
Homemakers in the Depression raised the pickling of cucumbers to an art. Other vegetables that were also pickled were carrots, beans, cauliflower, onions, okra, squash, beets, asparagus, and even brussels sprouts. Relish—mixtures of chopped vegetables—provided spice to dinners through the winters. Pickling is a way to preserve food by fully submerging the food in a strong salt or acidic solution, such as vinegar or lemon juice. Most any kind of spice can be added to enhance the flavor of the pickled food. The solution keeps the normal decaying processes from occurring.
Drying was another basic preserving method. The food is heated inside something with plenty of air circulation to get rid of any moisture. In warm and dry climates, fruits that contain lots of natural sugar to prevent decay can be sun-dried. Successful drying retains much of the original nutrition. Dried foods remain good for long periods of time, even months or years.
Although times were difficult, cleverness and creativity still flowed in the veins of Americans. In the 1930s the inventiveness of American entrepreneurs grew. To be an entrepreneur means to be an individual willing to try new approaches and take the risks of organizing and managing new enterprises. Products introduced by food entrepreneurs of the 1930s are familiar to contemporary families. Some of those products include Fritos, Kool-Aid, Skippy peanut butter, Spam, Pepperidge Farm baked goods, Toll House chocolate chip cookies, and Birds’ Eye frozen foods.
Many men took up the occupation of traveling salesmen in the 1920s and 1930s. Elmer Doolin was an ice cream traveling salesman in 1932. Moving through Texas he stopped for lunch at a San Antonio sandwich shop and happened to purchase a bag of fried corn chips for a nickel. Astounded by their unusual and irresistible flavor, he sought out the maker of the delicious chip. The maker turned out to be a Mexican man eager to go home to Mexico. For $100 he agreed to sell Doolin his corn chip recipe and the Frito name. Frito means “fried” in Spanish. One hundred dollars, however, was a lot of money in the depths of the Depression. Doolin’s mother sold her wedding ring to raise the money.
Doolin began selling Fritos from his Model T and gradually expanded his territory. At first, he made about two dollars per day selling the inexpensive treat. Soon it was Doolin’s good fortune to connect with potato chip king Herman W. Lay. With Lay’s distribution help, Fritos were soon being munched from coast to coast, and the brand Frito-Lay was launched.
Following its introduction in 1927, by 1929 Kool-Aid had become a huge hit and was available across the country. Mothers liked how Kool-Aid fit their Depression-times budget and provided children a treat. Kool-Aid was cheap, simple to make, and easy to store. Favorite flavors were cherry, grape, lemonade, and tropical punch. Edwin E. Perkins, the inventor of Kool-Aid, abandoned all of his other products to concentrate on keeping up with the demand. Net sales reached close to $4 million by 1936, making Perkins a very wealthy man amid the worst years of the Depression.
Spam and Skippy
Inexpensive quality foods were in high demand. Spam and Skippy peanut butter became classic examples of foods that met that demand. In the mid-1930s, a Hormel Company executive acquired several thousand pounds of pork shoulder. He quickly needed a creative way to use the pork and decided to chop it up with ham, add spice, and can it with a gelatin preservative. Hormel realized it had a tasty, inexpensive meat product that was likely to be very popular with consumers. A contraction of “spice and ham,” Spam received its name in a 1937, $100 naming contest. The meat in a can was an instant hit. Spam recipes emerged, it became a staple for soldiers during World War II, and millions of cans per year continued to be sold in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Another product that has endured into contemporary times is Skippy peanut butter. In the 1920s J.L. Rosefield developed a new process that kept peanut butter from separating out into oil and peanut meat. By 1933 Rosefield was producing his own brand of peanut butter in red, white, and blue tins. He called it Skippy peanut butter. Mothers realized they had an affordable, nutritious food that their children loved, and the product retained its popularity long past the Depression’s end.
Soft white American bread and peanut butter, or bread and Spam, became basic sandwiches in the 1930s. When the family doctor of Margaret Rudkin, however, advised her to keep processed foods from her allergic son, she set out to improve on the lifeless and additive-filled white bread that had become so popular in the United States. The young Connecticut homemaker began experimenting with stone ground, whole wheat flour, whole milk, honey, molasses, and butter. Her home baking expertise attracted her doctor’s other patients and his colleagues. Her commitment to wholesome goodness never wavered, and eventually the company known as Pepperidge Farm emerged. Rudkin assumed some customers would pay up to three times the 1930s going rate for a loaf of bread. She was correct. Enough customers paid 30¢ per loaf that her business thrived and expanded.
Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies
Another famous baker of the time was Ruth Wakefield. Wakefield baked the popular Butter Drop Do cookie at her Toll House Inn near Whitman, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. In the midst of baking a batch in 1930 she discovered she was out of nuts. Frantically, with guests waiting, she chopped up semisweet chocolate bars and dumped the pieces into the cookies in place of nuts. Amazed that the chocolate morsels did not melt in the oven, she named the cookies Chocolate Crispies before later renaming them Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookies. Guests loved them, and she included them in her 1930 cookbook, Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Cook Book. The recipe called for two bars of Nestlé yellow label chocolate, semi-sweet, cut into pea size pieces. Suddenly, sales of the chocolate bar rose dramatically in the Boston area, and a Nestlé representative visited Wakefield to see what was going on. Nestlé began scoring (making grooves across the surface so it will break into smaller pieces easier) its bars and including a small chopper in the package to break them into pieces. In 1939 Nestlé introduced chocolate morsels, and Wakefield signed a forty-year contract to print her recipe on the back of every package of morsels. The morsels and the cookie recipe, like Pepperidge Farm, remain popular in contemporary times, and Wakefield became yet another American food entrepreneur who became a millionaire during the Depression.
Birds Eye Frozen Food
Clarence Birdseye from Brooklyn, New York, is known as the “father of the frozen food industry.” He managed to launch this creative new line of food during the Depression. As a young scientist Birdseye traveled to Labrador, a peninsula in Canada, where he observed that fish “frozen before you could get them off a hook” would taste perfectly fresh when cooked weeks later. Birdseye experimented with freezing foods throughout the 1920s. He found that the quicker foods were frozen, and the lower the temperature at which they were frozen the better the quality was when cooked. Quick freezing worked not only for meats, but also for fruits and vegetables. When cooked they tasted far fresher than canned foods.
In search of money to launch a frozen food company, Birdseye cooked frozen food dinners for prospective investors and, along with borrowed money from his life insurance, he successfully raised the money he needed. In 1929 Birdseye merged his company, Frosted Foods, with Postum Company, creating General Foods.
Offering freezer units to stores for about eight dollars a month, General Seafood Corporation introduced Birds Eye frosted foods in 1930. With the country sinking into the Depression, it seemed poor timing to introduce a completely new line of food. Nevertheless, the frozen foods slowly caught on with the public. Homemakers stored the foods in rental freezer lockers, as suitable freezer units were not yet available for homes. Quality, however, was not always dependable. The Birds Eye Division did not turn a profit until the 1940s, when housewives in large numbers decided that frozen foods were the most convenient new product to arrive in their kitchen. By the mid-1940s, frozen foods were in everyday use by a vast number of Americans.
Cooks and Their Cookbooks
Another entrepreneur in the food industry was the cook—the cook who could write the steps of his or her craft in books that people wanted to buy. Between 1896 and 1930, the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, written by Fannie Merritt Farmer, was the most influential cookbook in America. Farmer, the most famous cooking instructor and cookbook author of the day, taught the nonwasteful technique of level measuring. Level measuring means keeping a smooth flat surface of the measured ingredient level with the rim of the measuring device, such as a measuring spoon. This simple technique made following recipes easier and resulted in more uniform dishes. Not only did her book contain help for beginning cooks, but for advanced cooks as well. In addition, every page taught homemakers how to put their heart and soul (love and creativity) into cooking. Nonwasteful techniques and heart and soul would all be required of cooks during the Great Depression. Farmer’s cookbook was unrivaled until 1931, when Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking appeared.
The Joy of Cooking was born out of its author’s need to survive in the Great Depression. Mrs. Irma Rombauer’s husband, an attorney, committed suicide in February 1930. Having always lived a privileged, genteel life, Irma saw the Depression closing in on her by the summer of 1930. She had placed her shares of American Metals stock in the hands of her nephew. He could only report that dividends were headed down with no change in sight. Rombauer and her daughter Marion moved from their comfortable home into a walk-up apartment in the West End of St. Louis. Faced with the necessity of making a living, the cheery, witty, and congenial Rombauer set out to gather recipes from family and friends to include in a cookbook.
By fall she had a set of loose-leaf notebooks full of typed recipes. She and her daughter called in a printer and paid for three thousand copies to be printed in 1931. Rombauer altered the traditional recipe format of first listing ingredients then giving instructions. Instead, using Farmer’s technique of giving specific measurements, she gave specific instructions for each ingredient. For example: Sift 1/2 cup sugar; Beat until soft 1/4 cup butter; Add sugar gradually; Blend these ingredients until creamy; Add grated rind of one lemon, and so forth.
Women found the book, which contained five hundred recipes, very simple to use. It was especially helpful to those middle-class and affluent women whose budgets no longer allowed for hired “help” to do the cooking and cleaning. In 1936 the Bobbs-Merrill Company, a publishing company in St. Louis, began publishing the cookbook. Rombauer’s persistence in finding a way to survive the Depression proved highly successful. The Joy of Cooking has subsequently undergone decades of reprinting and revision, and remained in print as of the early twenty-first century.
Product Driven Recipes
New mass-marketed processed foods began appearing in the 1920s and continued to be introduced right through the Great Depression years and the World War II years. Processed food refers to the more highly processed foods in which physical or chemical operations are applied to foodstuffs. Through numerous industrial means available, these foods are greatly altered in their appearance, taste, structure, or texture as the result of considerable processing. The nutritional value of the food is often raised or lowered as well. Sometimes certain essential minerals or vitamins are lost during the process. Processing has its benefits, such as converting perishable food into more storable food. The explosion of processed foods paralleled the growth of large food chain stores and the modernization of kitchens with ranges and refrigerators. Many people at the beginning of the twenty-first century remembered the much-loved recipes of their mothers and grandmothers, which often included store bought crackers, canned soup casseroles, molded Jell-O salads, and Bisquick baked breads and desserts. The recipes, known as product-driven recipes because the recipes were offered by companies to encourage use of their products, were easy and inexpensive.
While soda crackers were handed out in breadlines and soup kitchens, and unemployed Wall Street bankers sold apples on the streets of New York City, Nabisco Company introduced a round, richly buttery cracker called the Ritz in 1934. Nabisco hoped people would associate Ritz crackers with the grand Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan and feel lavish as they ate it. In 1935 a box of Ritz crackers sold for 19 cents, and unlike the Ritz-Carlton, most people could afford it. It became the world’s best selling cracker. The Ritz also became the main ingredient of Ritz mock apple pie. The pie, made with 36 Ritz crackers, tasted remarkably like apple pie, and its recipe became the most requested Nabisco recipe of all time.
In the 1930s many varieties of canned soups, from companies such as Campbell’s and Heinz, were available in stores. Campbell’s boasted 21 varieties of canned soup, and by 1939 Heinz listed 46 flavors. These soups offered a shortcut to the traditionally long cooking process of simmering ingredients all day in a soup pot. Companies produced charts for mixing two soups together to create more flavors. For example, on President Roosevelt’s inauguration day, a favorite dish served was mongole soup, a combination of pea soup and tomato soup. Homemakers could make an easy mongole soup by mixing together canned pea soup with canned tomato soup.
Canned soups also helped cooks use every scrap of leftovers. Noodle or rice soups, poured over leftover meats, served as inexpensive sauces and created a second and even a third meal. Casseroles got a tremendous boost in 1930s Depression cooking when Campbell’s introduced its Cream of Mushroom soup in 1934. No longer did cream sauces have to be prepared from ingredients that cooks did not always have. The Cream of Mushroom soup was used in a multitude of meat and vegetable dishes.
During the 1930s popular comedian Jack Benny advertised the six delicious flavors of Jell-O—orange, cherry, lemon, lime, strawberry, and raspberry—on his radio shows. During the Depression Jell-O served as an affordable yet fancy food. A patent for a “gelatin dessert” was issued as early as 1845, but the Jell-O name originated in 1902. The Postum Cereal Company, known at the beginning of the twenty-first century as General Foods, purchased the rights to Jell-O in 1925. General Foods published a booklet entitled What You Can Do with Jell-O. The booklet’s recipes instruct a user on how to whip Jell-O, set various fruit within it, or layer it. The inexpensive product delighted Americans, who have at various times referred to it as “shivering Liz,” “nervous pudding,” and “shimmy treat.” Unflavored Knox gelatin was also used in many recipes, such as a popular southern gelatin salad called Coca-Cola salad. Coca-Cola salad contained gelatin, sugar, water, lemon juice, Coca-Cola, and mixed, diced fruits.
A low-cost yet seemingly luxurious dessert also evolved from Jell-O and Knox unflavored gelatin—chiffon pies. Chiffon pies were light and fluffy, containing gelatin, cream, and egg whites beaten stiff. Favorite 1930s chiffon pies were lemon, pumpkin, chocolate, and pineapple.
In 1930 on a late night train bound for San Francisco, a Depression-era bread product was discovered. Carl Smith, a weary General Mills traveling salesman, boarded a train in the evening and headed for a diner. He expected only a cold plate for supper, but to his amazement the chef served him a dinner that included hot fresh biscuits. The clever chef explained to Smith that he premixed the dry ingredients with shortening and kept it in the icebox until needed. Smith reported his finding to General Mills and, within the year, Bisquick appeared, along with a booklet entitled 101 Delicious Bisquick Creations. More than 500,000 cases of the mix sold over a few months. Bisquick fans were so loyal to the product that no competitors survived, and the product remained popular into the twenty-first century.
Trends toward Urbanization
Between 1900 and 1930, the character of U.S. cities dramatically changed due to several factors. One trend was the shift of the population from farms to cities. America’s farm dwellers declined and, by 1930, 56 percent of the country’s population lived in cities. Factors contributing to this trend included continued low market prices for farm products through the 1920s that caused many farmers to go out of business, farms getting larger because of the greater use of mechanized farm equipment and thus squeezing out the smaller farms, and more jobs available in the ever-expanding industries.
At the same time as rural farmers were moving to the industrial cities another urban trend was occurring. Many of the more prosperous city residents moved to the outskirts of town—to the suburbs. This shift was made possible by the increased prevalence of automobiles which made longer commutes more feasible. This allowed many to escape the increasingly dense inner cities, filled with factory workers, where crime and health conditions were problems. There in the outskirts they had a home with a yard big enough for a garden. By contrast large numbers of the urban working class rented their living spaces in the city. They had no access to plots of land for gardens, so they often had a more difficult time obtaining vegetables and fruits to eat that were easily available to those with gardens. If inner city workers lost their jobs and therefore their wages, they and their families would find themselves in a desperate situation. This is exactly what happened to millions during the Great Depression.
Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration
Food use practices during World War I (1914-1918), although no one realized it at the time, were good preparation for the hard times of the Great Depression that was to follow ten years later. Just before World War I scientists discovered vitamins A and B. With these discoveries the general public’s interest in nutrition rose. Problems of supplying sufficient quantities of nutritious food appeared on a massive scale during World War I. It became necessary to feed American soldiers overseas, to feed people at home, and to supply food to European countries whose own agricultural production was disrupted by the war. As the government did later in World War II, Hoover encouraged Americans to eat perishables so that such staples as wheat and beef could be sent overseas.
President Woodrow Wilson (served 1913-1921) set up the Food Administration, which was headed by an efficient mining engineer and future U.S. president, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was directed to increase food production and cut waste. Hoover was very successful—some would say too successful. Increases in food production by farmers during World War I and continuing high levels of production after the war led to large farming surpluses in 1920s and 1930s. Those surpluses, however, were not effectively distributed to people in need.
The Food Administration also educated the public about vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates, as well as about the importance of fruits and vegetables and the best means of canning, preserving, and drying foods. The use of oatmeal, potatoes, and beans, among other foods, were promoted to the public. Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry, also participated in the education efforts. She offered a recipe for war pudding, which was included in Conservation Recipes, compiled by the Mobilized Women’s Organizations of Berkeley, California, in 1918. Herbert Hoover also urged the use of “victory bread,” which had a greater whole wheat content but with less butter and sugar per person. People also planted “liberty gardens” in vacant lots or in yards. Overall, Americans learned to use more whole wheat bread, less sugar, and more fresh vegetables that they grew themselves. These would be valuable lessons for surviving the Great Depression.
Chain Stores and the Processed Food Business
Chain stores are two or more retail (sell to the public) stores that have the same ownership and sell the same goods. A specific chain may be only in a certain city or region, or may be national or international. Chain stores may be grocery stores, department stores, hotels, or drugstores. The first chain store, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P) had thirty locations in 1869, and sold staple foods at lower prices than the corner grocery. Three years later the Jones Brothers Tea Company of Brooklyn, later called Grand Union, began operating stores. In 1916 the Piggly Wiggly chain started offering low prices and selfservice. By 1915 A&P had 1,726 stores, and a total of fourteen thousand by 1925. Chain stores often favored national brands of food, shipped from distant locations, rather than local farmers’ products. Because of this, chain stores contributed to the growing business of production, processing, and sale of foods and drinks with labels recognized nationwide.
The advantages chain stores had over local small retailers were several. These advantages became much more evident during the Great Depression when people needed to get the most out of their money. Chain stores had central organizations that purchase the goods for sale. Supplying a whole chain rather than a single store, the purchasers could buy on much more favorable terms since much larger quantities were being obtained. Chain stores had lower operating expenses since costs were shared throughout the chain. Advertising was largely handled by the central organization, therefore less expensive for individual stores. Because of financial support from the complete chain, chain stores could operate on smaller profits. For all these reasons, prices of goods at chain stores would normally be less than at independent local stores.
Perhaps most importantly to consumers, chain stores offered a vast variety of foods including fresh meats, canned and baked goods, and the new frozen foods. Consumers found the chain stores so much more attractive to purchase goods at in the 1930s that small independent retailers began going out of business. Some European nations acted to restrict chains in their countries so as to protect local store owners.
Women found careers as home economists in large food businesses, developing and introducing prepared ready-to-eat products. Entrepreneurs introduced new products for marketing. Sets of recipes were often created for the new products. The mass-produced products were cheap and easy to use. They made the chore of cooking easier for homemakers. New technology in the homemakers’ kitchens was also changing the way food was prepared.
Home kitchens became smaller and more efficient. During the 1920s gas stoves replaced the difficult, labor-intensive wood and coal stoves that had to be stoked, prodded, and frequently attended to. The new stove provided clean, easy heat, quick and accurate temperature control, and freedom from excessive kitchen warmth. The electric stove became prevalent in the 1930s.
Iceboxes, which had upgraded the flavor and freshness of the American meal, began to be replaced by refrigerators. The earliest electric refrigerator, which did not include freezer compartments, appeared around 1916. Refrigeration improvements advanced quickly from there. As homes electrified through the 1920s, the number of refrigerators in kitchens increased. The number of refrigerators in homes rose from twenty thousand in 1923 to 3.5 million by 1941. Home freezers did not appear until the late 1930s, and were not in wide use until the 1940s. The two-temperature refrigerator, which included the built-in freezer, came on the market in 1939. Small electric appliances such as toasters, percolators, grills, and waffle irons also began to appear in homes in the 1910s and 1920s.
Technological advances for the kitchen continued through the 1930s despite the economic hard times. The modernization of the kitchen did not reach the poorest Americans or those in rural areas without electricity. Not being able to afford the new technological advances, they maintained cooking traditions of earlier decades and could not stimulate the economy. For the middle class and for affluent Americans in cities, suburban areas, and electrified rural homes, the more dependable methods of food preparation that came with this modernization allowed them to utilize the mass-marketed foods. This utilization created a market for new products introduced in the 1930s. At the same time, purchase of the appliances by more and more households increased the market for new food innovations, thus supporting expansion of the food industry. Sale of these new food and appliance products eventually helped in the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression by creating much-needed jobs.
The Poor and a National Response
The economic troubles of the Great Depression made it difficult for many people to make ends meet. Lack of money often meant lack of food, and the poor became desperate. A few scattered food riots took place across the country in 1931. Some of those who took food said that they would pay for it when they could. Others simply said that they refused to starve when food was available on store shelves. This desperation did not spawn mass riots and revolution, however, due to the “American creed.”
By 1929 an American creed was ingrained in American culture. That creed was: Success was open to all that were willing to work for it. Those who failed deserved to fail and had done so through their own fault. This creed persisted at most levels of society following the stock market crash and after President Roosevelt had introduced his New Deal programs of relief and recovery. Consequently, many of the lower class felt they were to blame for their economic misfortune and were ashamed to accept government assistance. The strong individualism and striking financial successes of the booming 1920s economy had largely fixed this creed in the American mind.
Being on relief carried with it a great deal of shame. Relief could take various forms of assistance, most commonly in the form of money, food, shelter, and other necessities for the poor and needy. Relief was more commonly known in later decades as welfare or public assistance. Those who lost their jobs felt forced to accept charity to feed themselves and their families.
Beginning in late 1933, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) distributed surplus food to the poor. FSRC officials reported that, while people were grateful, they did not want to be on relief but had no other choice. Accepting relief was, to them, similar to begging. What people wanted were jobs. Lorena Hickok, a special assistant to the head of the FSRC, was quoted by Watkins in The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America (1999, p. 178), as reporting to her superiors, “These people don’t want to be on relief. They loath it. The percentage of those who call up and announce that they have jobs and won’t want any more food orders is truly impressive.”
The U.S. government’s attitude towards the deepening economic crisis altered dramatically with a change in the presidential administration. President Hoover (served 1929-33), served at the time of the 1929 stock market crash and in the early years of the economic troubles. He never doubted that the Depression was a psychological, not an economic, problem that would pass in time. At this time no government-backed social safety net existed for people who fell on hard times. You took care of you and yours, and the government left you to your own devices. Hoover felt that charity organizations, not government, should care for the hungry and poor. He strongly urged Americans to contribute to these organizations. He believed that the unfortunate should be cared for within their local communities and that the federal government should let the economic problems run their course without interference.
The change in government attitude came in 1933. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, millions of people were out of work and hungry. President Roosevelt and Harry L. Hopkins, head of the new Federal Emergency Relief Agency, believed that a more aggressive, organized approach had to be immediately pursued, and they did just that.
Americans, including the poor, had remarkable affection for President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Many of the poor believed that the Roosevelts would bring about the necessary changes for them. During his presidential campaign, Franklin Roosevelt promised to help the poor, and the people believed he would do so. Through the many social and work programs that Roosevelt established in his New Deal packages, changes were made. Even as dissatisfaction arose with existing relief programs, Americans still wrote to President and Mrs. Roosevelt for help. The poor saw the president and his wife as individuals who truly cared about their plight and were trying to make it better, so they were willing to wait and trust in the country’s leadership.
As the difficult years of the Depression continued, however, many people in the working class found pessimism replacing American optimism. When you were very hungry and had no hope for the future, it was difficult to be optimistic. Fundamental changes in American thinking began to surface.
The Middle Class
Many Americans were opposed to government relief programs, believing it would make “loafers” out of individuals, which would be a detriment to the country and to taxpayers. Thus, according to this opinion, people in need of relief should improve their own situation rather than accept handouts. Over the course of the Great Depression, however, neighbors shared and cared for each other. The self-centered individualism of the 1920s gave way to compassion and humanitarianism in the 1930s. People contributed to private relief organizations. Families and friends helped other families and friends who were out of work. Food was stretched with extenders, and dishes such as casseroles graced the meal tables. Those that had less were often invited to Sunday dinner. This was an uncommon period in U.S. history in many ways. One was certainly the level of community spirit demonstrated, even between strangers. Many of those who still had a means of support knew they could be the next out of a job and in need. The U.S. would not see such a level of humanitarianism throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.
The faces of the most desperate Americans seen on the streets of their local communities left permanent marks on those who did have enough to eat. The effects of the Depression were so great that, for the rest of their lives, the average American who “made do” during the 1930s remained thrifty. Decades after the Depression, grandparents would save twist ties—just in case—and eat every bite of food on his or her plate at meals.
Most of the rich remained quite comfortable throughout the Depression. Some of the well-to-do were sensitive to the problems of the hungry, such as was Daniel Willard, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In a June 1931 speech at the University of Pennsylvania, Willard noted, “While I do not like to say so, I would be less than candid if I did not say in such circumstances [of no work and no food, that] I would steal before I would starve” (quoted in Watkins, The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America, 1999, p. 106). Harry A. Mackey, the mayor of Philadelphia, commented on wealthy men and women’s failure to contribute significantly to the poor (quoted in Abraham Epstein, “Do the Rich Give to Charity?” Reader’s Digest, June 1931, p. 121):
Up to the present a great proportion of the relief funds has been contributed by the working class. It is a lamentable fact that many of our wealthy men and women have failed to respond, while many others who are rich have sent contributions for insignificant sums. I say to you it is the poor man who has saved the situation up to this time.
The most arrogant of the wealthy believed that the poor deserved their fate. The upper class, like the middle class, believed that a person’s misfortune was strictly the result of a flaw in the person’s character, not because of social forces beyond their control such as government policies and bad business management. Many wealthy men and women failed to contribute or sent insignificant sums to charities. Michigan senator James Couzens offered to contribute $1million to a $10 million relief fund if other millionaires would come up with the remaining $9 million. They refused. Although some wealthy people did contribute significantly to relief efforts, most did not. Most wealthy people were not greatly affected by the economic pressures of the Depression and continued to dine in luxury at such famous restaurants as the Ritz Carlton in New York and the Brown Derby restaurants in Los Angeles.
There were some wealthy, however, who did support New Deal programs and believed President Roosevelt’s intentions were indeed designed to save private enterprise, not undermine it. Winthrop Aldrich of Chase National Bank, Thomas Watson of IBM, Walter Gifford of AT&T, Gerard Swope of General Electric, and W. Averell Harriman of Union Pacific Railroad served as advisors to Roosevelt to assist in relief and recovery programs. Otherwise, a primary contribution of the wealthy was keeping millions of workers employed building skyscrapers and manufacturing the new refrigerators and other products coming on the market.
Diet and Nutrition
Despite the escalating unemployment rate and growth of breadlines on city streets, malnourishment was not considered a major health concern of the early 1930s. Heart disease, cancer, pneumonia, and infectious diseases were the leading causes of death. Though many were hungry, starvation was not a reality. Deaths from hunger and thirst was less than one per 100,000 of the total population.
Diets of ordinary people improved with the new processing and preparation technologies, such as canning and refrigeration, made available through the 1930s. Vegetables were consumed in greater abundance, and improved preservation and storage allowed for consumption longer through the year. In addition, federal food relief programs introduced foods to the South that were foreign to residents there, such as whole-wheat flour, coconuts, and grapefruit juice, as opposed to the customary pork and white flour. Overall, however, the novelty of canned foods led to a decrease in eating fresh foods that offered greater nutrition. Meat consumption during the Depression dropped from 130 to 110 pounds per person per year. Dried beans took their place, with the average American eating almost ten pounds a year, up from six pounds a year in 1920.
World War II
The conservative food usage of the Great Depression turned out to be needed again during World War II, which for the United States began late in 1941.
Huge shipments of food shipped to Europe led to shortages and hoarding in America. Industry could not produce enough of certain products to satisfy the demand both overseas and at home. The U.S. government introduced a system for distributing certain scarce products, such as food, among the U.S. population, called rationing. Each household would be given a certain number of coupons by the government for certain products, such as gas. Sugar rationing came early and caused significant adjustments in homemakers’ baking. War cakes again were full of raisins and other dried fruit just, as in Depression days. Beef was scarce by the spring of 1942. Just as in Depression times, rural people hunted game, and others depended on chickens, cheese, and eggs. By 1943 butter and canned goods were also rationed.
The establishment of a large government system for supplying food to the most needy during the Depression paved the way for yet another government system for rationing certain food items and other commodities. For many who had to cut back considerably during the Depression, war rationing seemed much less of a burden than it might have otherwise.
In 1943 General Mills published a Betty Crocker booklet, Your Share, which showed women, many of whom had been teenagers during the Great Depression, how to prepare appetizing, healthy meals with foods that were available. The booklet included charts to use corn syrup or honey in place of sugar for cakes. Homemakers turned to the familiar casseroles and food extenders—macaroni, potatoes, beans, rice, and dried peas—of the previous decade.
Located in backyards, vacant lots, or adjacent to war plants, 20 million “victory gardens” grew 40 percent of the country’s vegetables. In 1942, all across America, gardeners bought Burpee’s victory garden packets, which contained fifteen vegetables for one dollar, the Suburban Garden package of 25 varieties also for one dollar, and the Country Garden package of thirty types for three dollars. Even Eleanor Roosevelt had a victory garden on the White House lawn, and Harry Hopkins and his family tended to it. Home canning of vegetables was prevalent in approximately three-fourths of American homes, and families produced an average of 165 jars a year.
With the social dislocations of the war, homemakers in temporary military housing or wives working for the war effort turned to processed and ready-to-eat foods. Many of these foods had been developed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Large food companies gained strength as they received massive orders from the armed forces. Hormel’s Spam, first made popular in the 1930s, was the soldier’s staple. General Foods’ sales to the government rose from $1,477,000 in 1941 to $37,840,000 in 1944.
The processed food industry continued to grow throughout the twentieth century. By the later 1950s, cooking habits changed. There existed greater demand for convenience in food preparation and consumption. For example, demand for fresh fruits declined in favor of the less nutritious canned preserved fruit. Also, soft drinks and pizza became popular. Easier to prepare packaged foods became common as did as fast food restaurant chains. The processed food industry was concentrated in the large food producing companies of Beatrice Foods, Borden, Campbell Soup, General Foods, General Mills, Heinz, Kellogg, Nestlé, Kraft, Pillsbury, and other standard brands. New appliances included food processors, blenders, and in the 1980s, microwave ovens.
The agricultural community of farmers consisted of less than 3 percent of the population as of 1980, down from 25 percent in 1930 and 23 percent in 1940. Most people did not grow their own foods, and home gardening was more of a hobby than a supplemental and necessary food source. They instead bought their food in large chain food stores. Frozen and canned foods dominated the shelves, and fast and easy cooking for many meant popping a frozen dinner into the microwave to heat and eat. People did still cook fresh meals, but much less attention was paid to utilizing the most of every food source than it was on putting together a meal with the most ease and convenience.
As the twenty-first century began, the simple cooking of the 1930s persisted among few families. Depression-era recipes and cookbooks gained popularity by the end of the twentieth century, nostalgically harkening back to a different period of food preparation.
One development in the modern kitchen that was far beyond the imaginations of Depression families was the use of genetically modified foods. Though still in the experimental stages in early 2001, some farmers were planting and growing genetically modified crops. Designed to repel threatening insects that could affect plant health and to grow hardier crops, genetically modified foods were not without controversy. Environmental groups in particular renewed promotion of organic foods, so called because they were grown naturally and without the use of pesticides.
In the more than five decades since the Great Depression, Americans have gone from integrating new developments like Birds Eye frozen foods into their meals to having many of those same new Depression food items serve as a natural and daily part of their lives. Foods that were once scarce or utilized to the last scrap were being examined for genetically modified “improvements.” The food industry in America had undoubtedly come a long way since the 1930s, and many of the most far-reaching impacts on the industry arose out of the Depression.
The Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC) established the Food Stamp Plan on May 16, 1939, to ensure that surplus agricultural products got to the needy. The FSCC grew out of the New Deal program called the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC), created in the fall of 1933 for emergency relief for the hungry. Although the Food Stamp Plan was cancelled during World War II when full employment made it unnecessary, it was reestablished as a pilot program under President John F. Kennedy (served 1961-1963) in 1961. Kennedy directed the Agriculture Department to establish an experimental program based on the original Food Stamp Plan. This experiment later became a full-fledged program under the Food Stamp Act in 1964. By 1971 Congress had established uniform standards of eligibility for food stamps. During the later twentieth century, various changes to regulations and available funding tended to differ under each new administration.
As of 2001 the Food Stamp Program operated under the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Services. The program helped 7.3 million households put food on the table in 2000. Participating individuals used food stamp coupons just as they would cash at most grocery stores. Considered a transitional measure for individuals moving from welfare to work, the food stamp program, which first got its start due to the hard times of the Depression, is a cornerstone of federal food assistance programs.
Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938
During the Great Depression, many consumers became convinced that food, drug, and cosmetic businesses were practicing price gouging—charging too much money for products—and were engaged in consumer fraud. Consumer fraud usually took the form of companies claiming their products could perform better or benefit the consumer more than they actually could. The product was basically misrepresented in advertising. The existing Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 proved ineffective since it did not regulate drug makers’ performance claims unless fraud could be proven. Concern also arose as a host of new processed foods came on the market. Their quality and standard of safety was virtually uncontrolled, and the health impact for consumers was unknown. The American Medical Association (AMA) and state and federal drug officials all attempted to strengthen food and drug laws and to expose wrongdoing and misleading claims.
In 1933 Rexford G. Tugwell, assistant secretary of agriculture and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, led the drafting of a new food and drug bill. The bill greatly expanded government control over the drug-and food-processing industry. Drug claims contrary to general medical opinion were made illegal, and medical ingredients were now required to be clearly disclosed. Food labels were also required to list all ingredients. The government could establish quality and fill of container standards, and government officials could inspect factories to ensure the law was obeyed. The food, cosmetic, and drug industries adamantly opposed the bill and successfully lobbied against it.
Senator Royal Copeland of New York, whose main interest in Congress was food and drug issues, became a major supporter of the bill and continued to fight for its passage. Then, in 1937, 107 people, including many children, died from taking a drug called sulfanilamide, which a small pharmaceutical plant in Bristol, Tennessee, produced. A toxic chemical, diethylene glycol, had been added without the company first checking it for human toxicity. An angered public called for congressional action. Under the leadership of Senator Copeland and Representative Clarence Lea of California, and with the assistance of Walter Campbell, head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 passed through Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt signed it in June 1938 as one of the last major New Deal measures.
The new act greatly expanded consumer protection and increased the minimal penalties of violation set out in the 1906 act. The new provisions extended government oversight and standards control to cosmetics and medical devices, such as the modern day pacemaker, required new drugs to be shown safe before marketing, and eliminated the requirement to prove intent to defraud in drug mislabeling cases. The law authorized factory inspections and allowed food standards of identity, quality, and fill of containers to be set. For example, a product labeled “fruit jam” must contain 45 parts fruit and 55 parts sugar or sweetener; there may not be excessive pits in canned cherries; and minimum weights of solid food must remain after drainable liquid is poured off of canned foods.
Royal Samuel Copeland (1868-1938)
Copeland is in large part responsible for the enactment of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, which changed the way the government treated food and other materials, ensuring greater safety for the public. Copeland received a medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1889. He moved to New York in 1908 to serve as the dean of the New York Flower Hospital and Medical School and was a syndicated medical columnist. In 1918 Copeland was appointed commissioner of health for the city.
Although previously a Republican, Copeland, running as a Democrat, won a race for the U.S. Senate. He was reelected in 1934. Although initially he supported various New Deal programs, he became disillusioned with Franklin Roosevelt. His real interest in the Senate was food and drug legislation. Copeland supported the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act from the time Rex Tugwell wrote it in 1933 until its passage in 1938. Under the leadership of Copeland, the measure moved through Congress in 1938, and President Roosevelt signed it into law on June 24, 1938.
Fannie Merritt Farmer (1857-1915)
Fannie Farmer, considered the “brainiest” of the four Farmer girls, was headed for college until she contracted a disease—most likely polio—that left her an invalid. She learned to walk again, but had a pronounced limp. With marriage and job prospects poor, she found work as a housekeeper, and in 1888 she enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. A star student, within five years Farmer became principal of the school. In 1896 she struck a deal with Little, Brown Publishing Company to print The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, providing she pay the publishing costs herself. The book actually was based on Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book (1883) by Mary J. Lincoln, a teacher who preceded Farmer at the Boston Cooking School.
Farmer’s cookbook was extremely popular for decades to come, undergoing many reprints and updates. The success was attributed to Farmer’s use of level measurements, which standardized cooking recipes, rather than referring to a pinch of one ingredient or a dash of another. The book’s influence and popularity were unrivaled from 1896 until 1931, when Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking was first published. Continued printings of Farmer’s cookbook prepared Depression cooks to be less wasteful with ingredients and instructed those who lost their kitchen “help” to 1930s budgets in the basics. Farmer died in 1915, leaving an estate of nearly $200,000—a handsome sum for that period.
Jerome Frank (1889-1957)
A prominent young lawyer in New York City, Jerome Frank took the post of general counsel to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), which was established early in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Dedicated as he was to liberal reform, one of Frank’s major contributions was the development of a plan to distribute surplus farm products to the unemployed and needy. He helped create the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to carry out the plan. Frank also served as commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission beginning in 1937, and later was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Lorena Hickok (1893-1968)
Hickok, a journalist, became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt while writing a series of articles on her during the 1932 presidential campaign. New Dealers needed to know how the public perceived the legislation moving rapidly through Congress in the early years of the Roosevelt administration. How the legislative programs were affecting people and how well they were being administered around the country was vital knowledge. They selected Hickok to quietly travel around the country to investigate these issues and report back. Her reporting included descriptions of the hungry and how breadlines and soup kitchens were barely keeping them alive. She also included observations of men fighting over Civil Works Administration (CWA) shovels to prove they could work and descriptions of “wicked” politicians manipulating New Deal programs for their own gain. Hickok’s often humorous, sad, or angry, but always direct reports conveyed an accurate picture of the public’s situation to the Roosevelt administration and influenced further legislation.
Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946)
After graduating from Grinnell College, Hopkins held several social work positions in New York City. In 1931 then-governor Franklin Roosevelt appointed Hopkins deputy director of New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, where he learned about dealing with widespread poverty. When Roosevelt was elected to the presidency, he appointed Hopkins to head the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in May 1933. It became Hopkins’ job to feed the hungry. A few months later, Hopkins agreed to also head the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, charged with distributing surplus agriculture products to the needy.
Hopkins directed the Civil Works Administration (1933-1934) and the Works Progress Administration (1935-1938). He also served as secretary of commerce (1938-1940), and as special advisor and personal emissary to President Roosevelt during World War II.
Irma Louise (von Starkloff) Rombauer (1877-1962)
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to professional parents, Irma von Starkloff was educated in a Swiss boarding school, where she learned to converse in both German and French. In college she majored in fine arts at Washington University, but at age 22 she left her studies to marry Edgar Roderick Rombauer, an attorney. As her husband’s political career took off, Irma complemented him by being an efficient and highly entertaining hostess. When Irma was fifty-three, Edgar, who had long suffered with bouts of depression, committed suicide.
With the Great Depression closing in, Irma set about gathering recipes for a cookbook in an effort to provide herself with income and to combat loneliness. With the help of her daughter Marion, Rombauer located a printer and paid him to print three thousand copies of The Joy of Cooking in 1931. Sales were strong, and the Bobbs-Merrill Publishing Company began publishing the cookbook in 1936. The book was more fun and easier to use than Fannie Farmer’s cookbook. The Joy of Cooking was revised and reprinted throughout the twentieth century. It is regarded as America’s most influential cookbook, giving clear instructions that keep even inexperienced cooks from failing.
Rexford Guy Tugwell (1891-1979)
In 1931 Rexford Tugwell was an economics professor at Columbia University specializing in agricultural economics. He supported the use of national planning and government regulation of private business to bring about economic and social change. President Roosevelt appointed Tugwell assistant secretary of agriculture; his main function, however, was as a close advisor to the president. Tugwell had served in this capacity as a member of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” advisory team prior to the 1932 presidential election, so it was a role with which he was familiar. Tugwell played a significant role in drafting the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933. Also in 1933, along with Professors Milton Handles of Columbia University and David Cavers of Duke University, he drafted a new food and drug act to replace the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Congress debated the legislation for five years before passing the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938.
Breadlines provided sustenance to many who could not afford to buy food. Work was scarce, so the money to buy food was also scarce. Many people who were out of work due to the Great Depression supported families. One unemployed man described to New Masses on January 23, 1934, his day in the city after receiving his ration in the breadline (quoted in Winslow, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? America from the Wall Street Crash to Pearl Harbor, An Illustrated Documentary, 1975, p. 19):
You get shoved out early; you get your coffee and start walking. A couple of hours before noon you get in line. You eat and start walking. At night you flop where you can. You don’t talk. You eat what you can. You sleep where you can. You walk. No one talks to you. You walk. It’s cold, and you shiver and stand in doorways or sit in railroad stations. You don’t see much. You forget. You walk an hour and forget where you started from. It is day, and then it’s night, and then it’s day again. And you don’t remember which was first. You walk. There are men with fat on them and you know it. There are lean men and you know it.
Widespread suffering came to the coal-mining families of West Virginia and the Cumberland Plateau of Eastern Kentucky. Thousands of people were out of work. Many families lived in tents and had no food for days. A West Virginia miner’s recollection of the scramble for food during unemployment is recounted in Hooker’s Food and Drink in America: A History (1981, p. 309):
I can remember carrying Red Cross flour maybe 24 pounds of it six miles over these hills. We didn’t dare set it down for fear of getting it wet or a hole in it … Then mothers and sisters would spend all day on hillsides picking maybe a bushel of wild greens. We’d have corn meal and hog lard, some greens and generally everyone had a cow and we’d have some milk. In the late fall, maybe I’d go to the garden and find an old frozen cabbage to cook.
Then me and my brother we’d go work all day for some farmer for 50¢ and a meal and take the money up in beans and potatoes and apples a bushel of each and walk 3-4 miles home after 10 hours in the fields.
Since money during the Depression was tight for many families, and food often scarce, family cooks devised creative means to provide tasty and filling meals. Rita Van Amber of Menomonie, Wisconsin, reports on her memories in her book Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Vol. 2. (1986-93, p. 48):
Mom always set a good table. We had plenty to eat but not much else. It was often just a large pot of vegetable or potato soup, made with water and served with home made bread. Mom always made 18 or 20 loaves of bread a week and we had plenty of hot biscuits made by Dad for breakfast. We loved it; the soup and bread filled us up … She always made a lot of what we called cowboy stew. It was simple, very filling and delicious with home made bread. It was just venison roast, diced chopped onion and slices of potatoes, boiled until tender. We always had venison; we lived where deer were plentiful. We picked wild raspberries and choke cherries for Mom to can. She made what she called Sunshine.
Depression Impacts and Changes
Living through the Depression and “making do” for so many years often left impressions on people that were hard to shake. One individual, K.S., recounts in Thacker’s Recipes & Remembrances of the Great Depression (1993, p. 116) how the memory of a Depression “make do” food item led to disappointment later:
I grew up on “sauces” made of flour or cornstarch mixed with water or milk. Uncooked it was wallpaper paste. Cooked with pan drippings it was gravy, add sugar or honey and it was pudding. One day, years later, I ordered “blanc mange” from a menu at a fancy French restaurant. I felt gypped, it was just old cornstarch pudding!
Another individual, G.A., recalls how scarcity and necessity meant eating habits much different from contemporary ones (ibid, p. 123). “I never saw snacks, and no one would eat between meals like they do now. We ate supper at 6 PM and went to bed a couple of hours after that.”
Gardens and Canning
The produce from gardens helped many Depression families eat better. Canning was one of the ways to preserve the garden’s bounty past the harvest. Billie Hansberger of Cuba, Illinois, is quoted in Thibideau’s Dining During the Depression (1993, p. 195) as recounting his family’s efforts to use their garden to its maximum potential:
During the Depression, my mother and father grew and raised most of the food for our family.
We always had plenty to eat because Dad was a good gardener who could raise anything. He grew vegetables, raspberries, strawberries and peaches.
Besides the more common vegetables like radishes, beans, tomatoes and cabbage, Dad grew some more unusual items including oyster plants and celery. Of course Mother’s job was to preserve the extras for winter eating.
Many nights I can remember her staying up late to take the quarts of green beans out of the boiler and set them on the counter to cool before putting them with the others in our big storage closet.
Vegetables that Mother didn’t can were stored outdoors between layers of dirt and straw. They kept well and it was always fun to bring in a fresh head of cabbage, carrots, squash or onions during the cold winter months.
The entrepreneur spirit endured throughout the Great Depression, with many advances made in the kitchen in particular, be it through the advent of the refrigerator or the development of frozen foods. Rita Van Amber writes about an entrepreneur from Minnesota in 1936 in Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Vol. II. (1986-93):
The first Bridgeman’s Ice Cream store to open in Minnesota met ominous forecasts from the public.
“How many people would have a nickel to spare to buy an ice cream cone these days?” “Minnesota was just too cold.” “The season was too short for anything like that around here in these times.” Comments like this were heard as a daring entrepreneur went right ahead and opened a beautiful, shiny, bright ice cream store.
Somehow people found a spare nickel now and then and thoroughly enjoyed going into this cheerful busy place with all those flavors displayed behind glass. One just didn’t know which to choose. You sampled each other’s cone to see if your selection measured up. And you came back.
Within eighteen months, six more Bridgeman’s Ice Cream stores opened and all were highly successful.
Cooks devised numerous recipes that allowed them to use substitute ingredients and provide a variety of meals. Using a new processed food item that evolved during the Depression, Spam Stew was consumed in many households. It contained one can of Spam, one large potato, one medium onion, one stalk of celery, one garlic clove, two cups of water, and salt and pepper.
Breads and soups were common staples. A recipe for Baking Powder Biscuits, as noted in Rita Van Amber’s Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Vol. II, (1986-93, p. 29), includes two cups of flour, one tablespoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 cup of shortening, and 3/4 cup of milk or buttermilk. These ingredients were lightly mixed, dropped by a spoon onto a cookie sheet, then placed in the oven to bake at 350°F until browned. Homemade vegetable soup could contain any variety of vegetables. A common version included tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, and celery. To “extend” the meal, the cook could add some hamburger meat patties or a can of Campbell’s soup.
For special occasions or for a treat, cakes and pies could be made with substitute ingredients. One example of a cake made with substitute ingredients is the milkless, eggless, butterless cake. It contained two cups of brown sugar, one cup of raisins, one teaspoon of cloves, two cups of hot water, one teaspoon of salt, two teaspoons of lard, and one teaspoon of cinnamon. The ingredients were to be brought to a boil and boiled for five minutes. Once they cooled two cups of flour and one teaspoon of soda (previously dissolved in hot water) were added. This recipe made two loaves of cake that were baked for 45 minutes at 325°F.
Suggested Research Topics
- Take a trip to a grocery store and shop for: 1 lb. of chicken, 1 quart of milk, 1 dozen eggs, 1 lb. of coffee, 1 twenty-ounce loaf of bread, 5 lbs. Sugar, 2 lbs. of potatoes, and 1 lb. of bananas. Compose your total cost with the Depression Shopping List cost. Are products such as Spam, Ritz Crackers, Bisquick, and Pepperidge Farm still available?
- Describe how business practices and a willingness to take risks enabled a real entrepreneur to operate even in difficult economic times.
- Compare the government’s role in feeding the hungry in the 1930s with the government’s role at the beginning of the twenty-first century. What would happen to people if help was not available?