The Great Depression in the 1930s was a time of hardship, but it was also a time of creativity. Faced with limited funds and government-imposed food rationing, the Depression-era cook learned to work magic in the kitchen. Homemakers became proficient in making cakes without butter and eggs, and pie crusts from crackers. They made do with what was in the cupboard and used what groceries they could buy in clever ways.
Ingredients in Short Supply
Because of the economy and the food rationing, many different foods were not available in large quantities. Meat was notably scarce, even for those who raised their own livestock as they wouldn't want to eat their profits. Many recipes used rice, beans, and cheese instead of meat; the dishes were often simple fare that was easy to prepare, using canned and dried foods that didn't require an icebox, let alone a refrigerator.
Following the Depression, times were still tight as dairy products, butter, and eggs were rationed. Recipes began to call for vegetable shortening instead and reduce the amounts of the scarce items. Home cooks often recorded their recipes in a personal cookbook, some of which have been passed down; several of the recipes here come from these personal journals.
Typical Depression Era Main Dishes
Cooks from the 1930s had to be quite creative and resourceful, finding ways to use readily available, affordable ingredients. Hot dogs fell into that category and could be found on many a dinner table. Hoover stew is a recipe that took advantage of this ingredient. This pasta dish combines macaroni, canned tomatoes, canned corn or beans, and hot dogs. Another is a dish called "poor man's meal," which was made of fried potato and onion topped with sliced hot dog.
Other than hot dogs, there weren't many other options when it came to meat, except for dried chipped beef that was often turned into creamed chipped beef on toast. Thus, families got used to eating meatless meals, such as one that uses just three ingredients—bread, egg, and asparagus; this Pennsylvania Dutch meatless dish would have been perfect in the spring when asparagus was in season. Another meat-free dish was fried cabbage with pasta, a great recipe for leftovers. And soups were a great way to stretch ingredients, from an egg drop soup to a potato soup.
Depression Era Side Dishes
If the main dish was somewhat lacking, cooks would try to add heft to the meal with side dishes. Because they were available and cheap, ingredients like potatoes and cornmeal were commonly used to make side dishes for dinners during the 1930s. Hot water cornbread is made with just three ingredients: hot water, cornmeal, and oil. Potato pancakes were typical in many homes and included grated potatoes (or leftover mashed potatoes) along with baking powder, flour, and an egg (if available).
Vegetables in season were also an easy way to put food on the table. Dishes like smothered cabbage were common, which consisted of cabbage, oil, bacon and/or ham hock, and onion. And when times were the toughest, many would go foraging for greens like dandelions which they might have simply served as a salad.
Depression Era Desserts
Just because people were making sacrifices when it came to cooking, it didn't mean that they skipped dessert. Home bakers had to be very creative putting together sweet treats for their families since quintessential baking ingredients like eggs, butter, and milk were out of reach. One recipe is for the chocolate Depression cake, also known as Wacky Cake. What's so wacky? It's made without eggs; it gets its leavening from baking soda and vinegar. This cake is very simple to mix together and is a kids' favorite.
Families also enjoyed a simple white vanilla cake that too was made without eggs; it consists of flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, white vinegar, vanilla, oil, and water. Simply named "Depression-era cake" is a recipe for a cake made of brown sugar, water, oil, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg mixed with flour and baking powder and soda.
Many wedding cakes during the World War II-Era were actually made of cardboard, as the prime ingredients were difficult to find and afford. However, there is a record of a wedding cake recipe that would have required pooling ration coupons for eggs; it also uses vegetable shortening in the icing.
From a grandmother's Depression-era cookbook comes a recipe for crullers, deep-fried potato dough. And cooks of this era also learned to make oatmeal cookies using bacon drippings instead of butter.