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.
Even the President Ate Prune Pudding
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.
‘Surreal’ Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions Kept Things Super-Cheap
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.
Ritz Mock Apple Pie Subbed Crackers for Apples
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.
The First Lady Promoted Spaghetti with Boiled Carrots and White Sauce
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.
Vinegar Cobbler Faked Fruit Flavor
Believe it or not, in 2015, James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd started serving Vinegar Cobbler at his Houston restaurant, Underbelly. It reportedly tastes like a custard made from salt and vinegar chips, a rare dessert that “leaves the roof of your mouth tingling.”
Mulligan’s Stew Was Seasoned with Tobacco
The secret ingredient? A “a smattering of Bull Durham tobacco and lint,” presumably either to enrich the broth or to make your weak-gutted hobo companions nauseated so you could more easily steal their bindles.
“Milkorno” Mixed Milk and Corn for an Unlikely Superfood
There were also Milkorno’s step-siblings Milkwheato and Milkoato. Milkwheato, in particular, did big business: the government purchased 25 million pounds of the dystopian dust for use in hunger relief efforts. When boiled, every member of the Milkorno family turns into porridge, which makes you wonder what the Bureau of Home Economics was thinking when it suggested soggy Milkorno as a substitute for noodles in Chinese chop suey.
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner Was Born
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!”
There Were Loaves Galore
Even actual meat loaf 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 small cost.”
Dandelion Salad Was Sourced from Yards and Parks
One delicious and vitamin-packed ingredient foraged by Italian immigrant women in New York City—and by people all across the country—were 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, virtually free meal.
Gelatin Was a Cutting-Edge Food
The smell, as you might imagine, is reminiscent of canned cat food; the look is bright and slimy, like something you’d pay to have removed from your body after weeks of increasing discomfort.
Kids, Especially, Drank a Ton of Milk
Milk-mad nutritionists at the time placed a “tremendous importance” on the stuff and considered it a complete “wonder food.” School lunches almost always featured milk on the plate as well, in the form of kid favorites such as creamed cabbage, creamed carrots, and cornstarch pudding.
Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast Was Nicknamed “Sh*t on a Shingle” by US Soldiers
Nicknamed “SOS” for “sh*t on a shingle,” creamed chipped beef was served on bread or crackers (“shingle” was military slang for a piece of toast). This hearty but unpleasant concoction first became popular during the Depression. Later, World War II servicemen would also dine on creamed chipped beef, and it even became a running joke on the TV show M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War.
Hot Dogs Were a Mainstay of Dishes Like Hoover Stew
The results may sound bleak, but modern cooks are hard at work reclaiming Hoover stew today (though they sometimes substitute some fancier ingredients, like fresh vegetables instead of canned).
Red Velvet Cake Made Up for Its Deficiencies with Plenty of Red Food Coloring
The origins of red velvet cake are disputed. Some claim it was invented, or at least popularized, in the 1920s by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York; others, that the cake is Southern in origin. However, some believe that 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 World War II-era rationining 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 also have been just a cheap way to make an inferior cake look fancy.