Let’s bust one Great Depression myth right off the bat, courtesy of Bloomberg's Megan McArdle: “Even at the height of the Depression, when a quarter of the workforce was unemployed, most people were not on relief, and most were not suffering malnutrition.” Even if most people weren't eating as terribly as is popularly believed, the American diet during the Great Depression did change dramatically, thanks to the rise of the refrigerator, and, of course, the prioritization of thrift.
So what did people eat during the Depression? The Bureau of Home Economics encouraged a lot of substitution, leading to some pretty innovative concoctions. The government also pushed bland foods on purpose because “they wanted to force people to get jobs and to earn enough money to buy spices and seasonings,” according to Alan Coe, a food historian and co-author of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression. Refrigeration meant leftovers, so food during the Great Depression was prepared to last (think casseroles and loaves).
Because America didn’t have a “national conscious or memory of hunger” at the time, the Depression not only changed attitudes toward food, but also famously affected a lot of people’s behavior for the rest of their lives (just ask anyone with parents or grandparents who lived through it). The list below features some of the foods people ate to get through the Great Depression and how they changed the American diet.
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Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Was Born
The Great Depression might not have the most appetizing recipes, but the era did give the world the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner. In 1937, Kraft heard about a salesman for the Tenderoni Macaroni company of St. Louis going rogue and selling his noodles with packets of Kraft grated cheese attached. They hired the man to promote the concept and started selling it to cash-strapped Americans at the low price of 19 cents for four servings.
Speed was a big selling point, too: One early print ad featured a happy and bewildered husband asking, “How the deuce did you make this keen macaroni and cheese so fast? Why we just got home!” Kraft Macaroni & Cheese has become immensely popular and for many Americans still makes a regular appearance at the dinner table decades later.
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There Were Loaves Galore
Food historians say that loaves were “very popular” during the Great Depression because they “were made from an ingredient and a cheap thing that stretches the ingredient out.” There was a liver loaf, lima bean loaf, peanut loaf, and, as a “sparingly apportioned luxury,” actual meatloaf. Lima bean loaf allegedly tastes a “bit like falafel,” but is best with “lots of highly-seasoned gravy.”
Even actual meatloaf was relatively affordable when it was “padded out” with “bread and crackers, quick-cooking oats, tapioca, breakfast cereal, and powdered sauce mixes.” Meanwhile, like today, “bouillon, canned soup, and Heinz ketchup added flavor and moistness at a relatively small cost.”
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Dandelion Salad Was Sourced From Yards And Parks
Historians believe one of the “travesties” of federal Depression-era hunger relief and home economics is that the government didn’t look to immigrants for inspiration. Italian immigrants, for example, were known for food that was “cheap and delicious and highly nutritious,” but the government wasn’t pushing people to eat like them at all.
One delicious and vitamin-packed ingredient foraged by Italian immigrant women in New York City - and by people all across the country - was dandelion greens, which could be “harvested” from parks, yards, and vacant lots in the early spring. The leaves could be added to salads or sautéed in olive oil and added to cooked white beans for a tasty, nutritious, and virtually free meal.
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Red Velvet Cake Made Up For Its Deficiencies With Plenty Of Red Food Coloring
Now a mainstay of cupcake stores everywhere, red velvet cake may have started as a cheap substitute for chocolate cake.
The origins of red velvet cake are highly disputed. Some claim it was invented, or at least popularized, in the 1920s by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, while others claim the cake is Southern in origin. However, a large portion of people believe the cake was inspired by Depression-era homemakers substituting inexpensive vegetable oil for pricier butter and adding only a tiny smidgen of real cocoa to make what has been called charitably "a cousin of chocolate cake." Others argue the culprit was WWII-era rationing of sugar and butter, though recipes for red velvet cake predate the war.
The original red color may have been the natural result of combining the cake's vinegar and buttermilk with baking soda and old-fashioned cocoa powder (today's cocoa powder doesn't create the same effect). Then again, the red color might have been red food coloring used as a cheap way to make an inferior chocolate cake imitation look fancy.
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Creamed Chipped Beef On Toast Was Nicknamed 'Sh*t On A Shingle' By US Soldiers
In their book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, culinary historians Jane Ziegelman and Andy Coe call creamed chipped beef - a combination of canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar, and lemon juice - "wrong in every possible way." Yet some people are still nostalgic for this long-gone dish.
Nicknamed "SOS," or "sh*t on a shingle," by US soldiers, creamed chipped beef was served on bread or crackers ("shingle" was military slang for a piece of toast). This hearty but polarizing concoction first became popular during the Depression.
Later, WWII servicemen would also dine on creamed chipped beef, and it even became a running joke on the TV show M*A*S*H, which was set during the Korean War.
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Ritz Mock Apple Pie Substituted Crackers For Apples
The Ritz Mock Apple Pie became a “Depression-era favorite,” despite the fact that it was a pastry imposter. Using crackers in lieu of actual apples, Ritz's apple pie recipe made up for its fruit deficiency with a potent combination of "American history, science, and psychology."
How does it work? The aromatic mixture of sugar, cinnamon, butter, lemon juice, and crackers combined to convince the taster's senses that the pie actually tasted of apples. Lisa Abraham of the Akron Beacon Journal attempted to bake such a pie in modern times but reported that the result tasted more of lemons than apples.
Jeannine Delwiche, a professor at Ohio State University and specialist in sensory science, explained to Abraham that the scent of cinnamon and the overall look of the cracker-filled dish would have had a powerful effect on people in the Depression era, evoking the memory of apple pie more than the actual flavor.