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.