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By Debra R. Messick

Hearty home cooking lessons from the Depression

The Great Depression conjures up stark images of breadlines, soup kitchens and close-to-starvation rations. Deprivation was a fact of life for many during those hard times. But for those with even a little income and a lot of ingenuity it was possible to put hearty, filling meals on the family table.

These creative homemakers not only filled bellies but also lifted spirits. Their legacy? Depression-era children who later recall “not having much, but never going hungry.”

The tasty ways they survived and thrived provide inspiration for today’s belt-tightening times. Single moms, seniors and many others facing rising costs on lower incomes can take some comfort from their example. We can all learn how less can be more, deliciously.

For a variety of reasons, including concerns for health, the environment and animal welfare, we’ve already adopted many Depression-era cooking strategies.

Where’s the beef?

Meat was a rare, expensive commodity during the ‘30s. To satisfy cravings for animal protein at a fraction of the cost, tasty substitutions became meal mainstays, with vegetables such as eggplant and mushrooms filling in. Inexpensive meat products, including hot dogs and Spam, were added to potatoes, onions, pasta and rice. Beef and fish were stretched by adding eggs, oatmeal and other fillers and made into loaves, or were used sparingly to flavor stews, soups and casseroles, and served in gravy or sauce on bread or biscuits. Eggs from backyard chickens and beans such as lentils were other affordable protein sources.

Simple and natural

The current taste for simple, “all natural” ingredients is another way Depression-era cooking seems almost contemporary. Yes, iconic packaged products like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Hostess Twinkies and Fritos corn chips were created in the ‘30s. But most pantries were stocked with potatoes, rice, flour, apples, condensed milk and other staples. With just a little know-how, these items were transformed into mouth-watering comfort foods like twice-baked potatoes and apple betty.

Oven fresh

During the Depression, as today, homemade baked goods were an economical way to fill plates, stomachs, nostrils (ah–the aroma!) and maybe even souls. Instead of containing barely pronounceable chemicals and unappetizing ingredients like dough conditioners, white and wheat loaves, cornbread, johnny cakes, biscuits, pizza, cinnamon rolls and sugar cookies were unadulterated, flavorful and, best of all, filling.

Home grown and foraged

Backyard vegetable gardens gave cash-strapped Depression-era cooks a secret arsenal of flavor and nutrients to stretch and add variety to countless meals. Mushrooms gathered in the wild and dandelion greens dug up from city streets did not even require the initial cost of seed. With careful cleaning, then frying or dressing with olive oil, they were cost-free, tasty and nutritious.

Waste not

Depression-era cooks didn’t have much to start with, and what little they had they didn’t dare squander. Garden bounty was preserved, pickled and canned. Vegetable peelings were added to broth instead of to the garbage. Not only did resourceful cooks save their families from hunger, they also saved the planet from today’s scourge of garbage overload.

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