Let’s bust one Great Depression myth right off the bat, courtesy of 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 it wasn’t all hobos sharing beans on a garbage can lid, 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 disgusting 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.” 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 that lived through it). The list below features some of the stranger foods people ate to get through the Great Depression and how they changed the American diet.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t just going to sit back and let this whole “Great Depression” nonsense keep her country down. The famous feminist was an early supporter/patron saint of the home economics movement, and she practiced what she preached: food served in the White House during the Depression was famously the dreariest in history.
Poor FDR had to eat—at least when the press and/or guests were around—denture-friendly fare such as “deviled eggs served in a tomato sauce with a side of mashed potatoes” with “prune whip” (pudding) for dessert. The humble and much-maligned prune, along with its ragtag dried fruit cousins, was a common substitute during the Depression for pricey fresh fruit.
Food historians Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman, authors of A Square Meal, prepared peanut-butter-stuffed baked onions using a Depression-era cookbook and lived to tell the tale to the New York Times. How did the dish turn out? “It was not a popular addition to the dinner table,” Coe said. Ziegelman called the experience “surreal,” noting sagely that “peanut butter has nothing to say to a baked onion.”
Who’s to blame for this unholy alliance of peanut butter and baked onion, this wretched PB&BO? The well-intended but seemingly palateless Bureau of Home Economics, whose professional home economists published recipes and articles in our fine nation’s newspapers and magazines urging housewives to become “budgeteers” and serve this glop to their families.
Thanks to some kind of culinary Stockholm Syndrome, this deceitful treat is known today as a “Depression-era favorite.” The Ritz Mock Apple Pie is a pastry imposter: it’s an apple-free apple pie, with Ritz crackers—and a pinch of desperation—meant to stand in for America’s favorite fruit/doctor-repellant.
How does it work? It’s a soggy charade: the sugar, cinnamon, butter, and lemon juice gang up with the buttery taste and unique texture of the Ritz crackers to convince your senses and mouth hole that actual apples were harmed in the making of this revolting cracker pie.
Eleanor Roosevelt was doing the best she could with the hand she was dealt. How would you like to be the First Lady during the Great Depression in a time when Lady Magic in the kitchen was supposed to help us through the crisis? That said, Roosevelt promoted some truly foul dishes in her efforts to promote savvy home economics, such as this off-putting “casserole” made from spaghetti, boiled carrots, and a simple white sauce of milk, flour, salt, and butter.
The first step is to cook the spaghetti for a sadistic 25 minutes, which in a sane world means Step #2 is to order the biggest pizza Domino's will make. But this is the Great Depression we’re talking about, so the idea is to get the noodles mushy so they pair nicely with the boiled-to-death carrots and the pennies worth of creamy sauce. The result? A “vehicle for nutrition and nutrients” that probably made people want to eat their old Flapper hats instead.