Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What the Great Depression Can Teach Us About Food and Frugality

“The most vivid memory I have of food is that there was never enough. … I remember one dinner where my mother, myself and my brothers and sister sat down to a meal. The meal consisted of three boiled potatoes and one slice of white bread which we divided up amongst us. I noticed my mother was not eating and I asked her why she was not eating. She answered that she was on a diet.” –Laura C. Rinfret

Unemployment was up in every state in December. The Dow Jones closed just below 8000 today. The words “Hoover,” “breadline,” and “I just sold my teeth to pay the rent,” decorate the news with alarming frequency.

These are all indications of one thing: the economy’s taking the express train to Crapville, and we need to brace ourselves for the ride. While few expect the U.S. to bottom out Iceland-style, many are buckling down for some of the worst fiduciary times since the 1930s.

Fortunately, as we prep for the presumably tough years ahead, there are lessons to be learned from past hardships, the hugest of which was undoubtedly the Great Depression. No other generations had it tougher than our grandparents and great-grandparents, who struggled to find work, sacrificed to keep their families going, and cut costs anyway they knew how. For many, this usually involved the grocery bill.

What follows, then, are a few food ideas from the olden days, gathered from a variety of articles, posts, and online accounts of the Depression. Please feel free to add your own elders’ methods in the comment section.

And now, in no particular order…

Don’t panic.
Sure, things were bad. Real bad. Bad enough that a quarter of all eligible Americans were out of work. Still, very, very few people starved during the Depression. Rural and Dust Bowl families had it the worst, and would often go hungry (see: The Grapes of Wrath), but it was never a matter of country-wide food supplies totally running out. According to one source, those earning less than $2 per week were still getting around 2500 calories per day. Even better, says author Harvey Levenstein, “there [was] no indication, in mortality and other statistics, of an overall deterioration in the health of the nation.” There may be tough times in the future, but ultimately, we’ll survive.

Don’t look to mainstream media for guidance.
During the Depression, lifestyle magazines tended to gloss over the fact that there WAS a Depression. In her book Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, author Sylvia Lovegren claims they “never mentioned the terrible plight of many of their readers and only occasionally ran a feature on economical meals.” While today’s mainstream magazines and television seem a bit more in tune with the times, they're still primarily for escapism. So, it remains up to the individual to seek out reliable information on his or her own.

Talk to your grandparents.
Quick, while they’re still around. When it comes to learning about the Depression, there’s no better resource than those who were there. Dial up Nana, send a letter to Pappy, and start your inquiries. Beyond the obvious tips and tricks you’ll receive, odds are they’ll enjoy the chance to connect, reminisce, and pass on the memories - even the not-so-good stuff.

The worst of times tend to bring out the best in Americans, and it was no different in 1929. asserts, “Soup kitchens … charitable organizations (religious groups, Ladies Aid Societies, Salvation Army, etc.), community service groups, government agencies, companies, and private individuals,” all pitched in to keep their neighbors from starving. In the age of Obama, we can do wonderful things by following their lead.

Share and share alike.
Church dinners, women’s clubs, and family get-togethers soared during the ‘30s, because they were easy, inexpensive ways of both entertaining and sharing food. “Hostesses gave luncheons, teas, and cozy Sunday Night Suppers around the chafing dish,” says Lovegren. Plus, “the Thirties also ushered in an era of women's clubs--whether dedicated to charitable activities, gardening, or the fine art of bridge.” The lesson: grab some friends and get a potluck going. You’ll have a stellar time and won’t even realize you’re saving cash.

Learn to support yourself now.
It was true then, and blogs like Wise Bread claim it’s still true today: “Pretty much anything is cheaper if you do it yourself, from home repair to cooking meals.” Feeding yourself healthfully and cheaply is a learned skill, and something that we, as a society, could brush up on a bit. Perhaps we could take a note from 89-year-old Rosalie Schnierle who reminisces in the Chicago Sun Times, "Everything was homemade. There was a lot of cooking. There was a lot of baking."

Save, preserve, and stock up.
A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, our rural brothers and sisters would pickle, jar, can, and preserve until the cows came home. (If, in fact, there were any cows left.) It’s a lost art these days, with most of us living in cities and suburbs. Still, we have the storage and technology to fill our pantries with frugal, long-lasting food to take us into the next season. And if you’re interested in the pickling and such? The skill can be reclaimed with a little research.

Concentrate on one-dish meals.
During the ‘30s, say the folks at Wessels Living History Farm, “home economists taught women how to stretch their food budget with casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast or waffles. Chili, macaroni and cheese, soups, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular meals.” Comparatively inexpensive, one-dish dinners can pack in an entire meal’s worth of vitamins and minerals in … well, one dish. To quote Ms. Martha, it’s a good thing.

Love leftovers.
Back in the day, leftovers (provided there were any) were key components of the coming week’s meals. Mary MacVean of the LA Times states, “It was a time when leftovers were planned. A roast chicken -- for Jewish Shabbat or Sunday dinner -- lasted for days, as chicken with rice, chicken and dumplings, pot pie, stew or soup or salad.” Always keep it in mind: making big portions of every meal will ensure you eat for days after.

Embrace soups and starches.
As simply put by, “Throughout time, in almost every culture and cuisine, soups and have been the primary foods consumed by people with not much money.” Frugal, stretchable, and easy to make, it’s the meal of choice for lean times. Bread, potatoes, and pasta exist along the same lines. For those in need, they’re lifesavers.

Do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Cheaper cuts of meat, simpler meal preparations, and creative combinations drove the cuisine of the early ‘30s. And while “baked bean sandwiches,” and “liver and bacon” (favorites of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) might not be particularly appealing, there are hundreds of recipe ideas and resources in the library and online for those who look.

And if all else fails …

Join the mob.
According to The New York Times, Al Capone’s soup kitchens fed hungry people better than any others of its day: "Three meals are served each day, including Sundays. Breakfast consists of coffee and a sweet roll, and dinner and supper of soup, bread and coffee, with a second or third helping permitted." This might be a good time to call Tony Soprano and ask if he’s recruiting.

Folks – ideas? Do tell.

*Photos and more extensive citations coming Thursday.*


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