15 Weird Foods That Were Common During The Great Depression

By Rebecca November 23, 2017 08:31

15 Weird Foods That Were Common During The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a time of scarcity-induced innovation: families had to do without many household staples and used their resourcefulness to come up with alternatives made from goods that were more readily available. From dying their legs with tea in lieu of stockings to mending shoes with cardboard, the families of the Great Depression used what they had to make up for shortages of practically every food and good.

Nowhere was Great Depression ingenuity—and desperation–more apparent than in the average American kitchen. Spurred on by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who encouraged families to save money and resources by practicing savvier home economics, the Great Depression produced some truly disgusting food combinations. Not all the dishes that came from this time were short-lived, however; mega food companies like Kraft used the new normal as a platform to make their products, like mac ‘n cheese, a household staple for generations to come.

Although most of the dishes on this list aren’t for the faint of heart—or the weak of stomach—these dishes represent the true American spirit of resiliency and, for better or worse, creativity.

1) Prune Pudding

This simple dessert was made famous when Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to serve the dish to guests who were invited to the White House. Prunes were easy to store, widely available, and much less expensive than other fruits, while providing needed nutrients to the Depression-era diet: the fruit is packed with fiber and supplies almost one-third of your daily needs for Vitamin K.

2) Mock Apple Pie (No Apples)

Apples weren’t readily available in the Great Depression, yet Americans weren’t willing to give up their cherished apple pie. Enter “mock apple pie” which substituted apples for crumbled crackers sprinkled with flavored syrup and cinnamon, all baked into a crust. The most famous of these recipes appeared on the back of the Ritz cracker box in 1934: “Ritz mock apple pie” was an instant hit.

3) Spaghetti and Carrot Casserole

Casseroles were wildly popular in the Great Depression: by combining all sorts of leftovers into one dish, families could increase the variety of their menu without needing to incorporate hard-to-find items. At the time meat was, for most, an unaffordable luxury so in this spaghetti casserole, boiled carrots were substituted for pricier meatballs and the whole concoction was then covered in white sauce.

great depres vinegar cobler4) Vinegar Cobbler

This dessert substituted a large amount of vinegar for more expensive fruit, in addition to water, a small amount of sugar, vanilla and butter as the filling.

Related: 5 Commitments You Must Make Before the Next American Depression


5) Mulligan Stew

“Mulligan stew” is a term used for stews created by the homeless during the Depression. As the recipe varied depending on what food was on hand, the “stew” can be thought of as throwing anything and everything you had in the pot to fill your belly. Some down-on-their-luck folk went so far as adding lint to the pot to make it more filling.

6) Loaves

When the food shortages began, meatloaf was already a diet staple. Another example of a food that had to be tweaked to accommodate the scarcity of the new normal, meatloaf became “anything” loaf… from meatless meatloaf made with everything from peanuts to raisins to liver loaf, families used their creativity and whatever was available to make this alternative to the weekly favorite.

7) Dandelion Salad

A dish that is a favorite of preppers and wilderness experts alike, dandelion salad is nutritious and can be made with simple greens foraged from any neighborhood. With salt, pepper, and vinegar to taste (when available), dandelion salad was both tasty and a way to add vital nutrients to the dinner menu without spending a cent.

Related: How to Make Dandelion Bread (With Pictures)

8) Kraft Macaroni and Cheese

Kraft Foods introduced its iconic macaroni and cheese in 1937, selling 8 million boxes its first year of production. The simple to make pasta dish provided 4 servings of food for $0.19 each, making it a cheap and easy way to fill empty bellies.

7) Jell-O

Gelatin surged in popularity during the Great Depression, with Jell-O leading the pack as the most popular. Gelatin (and Jell-O in particular) was marketed as a way to treat yourself to something “fancy” and often gave its relatively simply recipes exotic names. Much more affordable than pies, a handful of peanuts or a cherished piece of fruit could be turned into a gelatinous masterpiece worthy of the holidays with little expense.

8) Creamed Chipped Beef

One of the most famous foods on the list, creamed chipped beef is affectionately known by many World War II veterans as “s**t on a shingle.” The chipped beef was covered in gravy and served on a piece of toast. When chipped beef was not available, other meats were substituted.

9) Poor Man’s Meal

Both potatoes and hot dogs were inexpensive and easy to find; both make an appearance in this Great Depression meal. By frying up potato slices and adding a few hot dog pieces, families could get a filling meal without using scarce and expensive ingredients.

Related: Canning Amish Poor Man’s Steak

10) Peanut Butter Stuffed Onions

Created by the Bureau of Home Economics, this dish was well-known only for it’s bizarre taste. Baked onions were “improved” with scoops of peanut butter as filling, resulting in a disgusting and much disliked period food.

11) Hoover Stew

Like many other stews of that time, this recipe changed depending on what ingredients were on hand. Hoover stews (named after President Hoover) were mostly given out in soup kitchens and consisted of very thin broth with hot dogs, pasta, and any vegetables available.

12) Italian Ice

Italian ice was popular during the time because of its similarity to ice cream, without the addition of costly ingredients like cream and rock salt. This frozen treat was inexpensive and helped stave off the heat during the long summer days.

13) Potato Pancakes

Because of the wide availability and low cost of potatoes, Depression-era cooks used potatoes as substitutes in other dishes. Potato pancakes, made with grated potatoes cooked or fried in a pan, was a common dish at every meal.

Related: How To Make Potato Flakes With 5 Years Shelf Life (without refrigeration)

14) Tin Foil Hobo Dinners

Hobo dinners, named after the homeless who lived in shantytowns near the railroad tracks, were a favorite because they could be cooked over an open fire. A square of tin foil was filled with meat, potato, onions, and other ingredients and thrown on top of the fire to cook for approximately half an hour.

15) Great Depression Casserole

Last on our list is the Great Depression casserole, which features bologna as the prized ingredient. With other budget-friendly ingredients like pork and beans and onions, this casserole was filling and could be altered to fit any budget.

You may also like:

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By Rebecca November 23, 2017 08:31
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  1. Wannabe November 23, 15:58

    Love it! Never knew some dishes I have eaten most of my life are from the depression. Every time I take a bite it just doesn’t seem like suffering Lol! Happy Thanksgiving everybody

    Reply to this comment
  2. Wannabe November 23, 16:02

    Change the poor mans meal from potatoes to cabbage and man what a meal!!!

    Reply to this comment
  3. Homesteader November 23, 16:17

    Interesting little article. Most of what is listed, I make variations of today, as I’m sure a lot of people on here do. I do, however, draw the line at No.10. Save the onions for something else and just eat a peanut butter sandwich.

    Reply to this comment
    • Clergylady November 23, 17:11

      #10…i wonder if I could get hungry enough to swallow that?

      Reply to this comment
      • Jabberwokki November 23, 17:58

        Thanks to a kid’s movie I saw when I was younger I made a sandwich based on those two ingredients. Trust me. Don’t do it. Instant regret with the first bite.

        Reply to this comment
        • left coast chuck November 23, 19:46

          The picture shows brown onions. Putting peanut butter on break and slicing red onions or Vidalia onions thinly and putting them on top of the peanut butter might be a better choice. Brown onions are a little strong to eat raw. However, red or Vidalia onions are a little milder in my opinion and might be okay. I can’t visualize “stuffing” onions with peanut butter. You peel the onion and then somehow core it out and insert peanut butter??? Sort of like a huge pimento stuffed olive??? Seems like lot of work. Why not just spread the peanut butter on bread or crackers and put a thin slice of onion on top? Lots less work.

          Reply to this comment
          • Homesteader November 23, 23:39

            The article does say baked onions. Still yucky no matter what. Cannot imagine being that desperate to try it. I would have to find an alternative.

            Reply to this comment
            • left coast chuck November 24, 03:31

              That seems like even more work for low return. Now if we are talking about liverwurst on dark rye bread with sliced red onions, we are talking about gourmet dining, especially if there is a heavy layer of mayonnaise on the top slice of rye bread.

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      • Johnny November 23, 23:08

        I grew up poor, and my Mom was not a good cook, resulting in me living by this philosophy; If I’m hungry, and it’s safe to eat, then it’s “outstanding!” This got me through my Army stint [66-68]. When many of my buddies were going hungry via refusing to eat WW2 C-rations, I never went hungry. I salvaged much of what they discarded, unopened, into the”bury” pile!!!

        Reply to this comment
  4. Clergylady November 23, 16:55

    I wonder if the breakfast, biscuit and gravy got its start about that time as well?
    Dad went to college on the GI Bill. Mom and I often ate forraged greens or thickened home canned fruit over toasted slices of homemade bread.
    I still like homemade mac n cheese. Better than the boxed stuff.
    Any meatloaf that is well seasoned is good. Potatoes as poorman’s fare is fine by me. Baked, fried, boiled, mashed, scalloped, et are all good eating.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Mattwm November 23, 17:29

    My mom carried some of these ideas into our meals all through the 60’s and 70’s. I’m surprised there’s no mention of Spam.

    Reply to this comment
  6. left coast chuck November 23, 19:39

    We never bought boxed macaroni and cheese. It was too expensive. Our macaroni, cheese and scraps of ham was always home made. We could always count on MC&H meals after we had had a ham. The fat would be carefully cut from scraps of meat and the meat would be cut off the bone for MC&H. The ham bone would then be cooked with navy beans or dried lima beans for additional meals. One reason why I liked ham and lima beans in the C-rations. It was home cooking as far as I was concerned.

    According to the book, Paddy’s Lament, a book about the Irish famine in the 19th century and the British oppression of the Irish people, a diet of boiled potatoes, wild mustard greens and the occasional egg will provide sufficient quantities of necessary vitamins and minerals to maintain health. A good reason to plan on including potatoes in your ETOW situation diet and gardening plan. They are easy to grow and don’t need a lot of room. They store well. They can provide most of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to avoid diet related conditions, including scurvy. They make you feel full. Boiling potatoes or wrapping them in foil and roasting in the coals of a fire are easy ways to prepare them.

    Reply to this comment
    • nene22 November 24, 15:38

      Another good thing about potatoes is that the deer won’t eat the tops (and they don’t dig them up). We finally had to give up our garden because of the deer eating most things.

      Reply to this comment
      • Homesteader November 24, 18:32

        We had a similar problem with rabbits. Had to fence in the garden. My brother used to have a deer problem when he was still gardening. He put up a single wire around the perimeter of the garden about 6 to 8 inches off the ground. The deer would not cross it.

        Reply to this comment
      • Wannabe November 25, 21:31

        Easy problem to fix nene22, shoot the deer they are delicious

        Reply to this comment
  7. klingongal November 23, 19:57

    Hmm. I guess when I was growing up, I was eating depression food….loved all of it. Never heard of the onions stuffed with peanut butter, though…maybe that was a regional thing…? We made “ham salad” out of bologna…good old meat grinder that mounted on the kitchen table…had two gardens (I lived in the country)…this was fun to read. (I’m 54 so not THAT old!)

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  8. GuitpickinCowHippy November 23, 21:09

    It seems then we were “poor” growing up. My mom made some of these dishes for us during times when dad was out of work (70s), I assume learned from my Grandma who grew up during the Depression. Macaroni&cheese with sliced hotdogs was one of my favorite dinners growing up. Little did I know what a miserable life I was apparently having (sarcasm). Kids don’t know they’re poor, unless reminded of it by other kids.

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    • Lyle November 23, 23:30

      OK, I am 80 years old and grew up in a very poverty stricken Family and some of the things we had for meals were (which aren’t on your list) “Soupy Gravy” it is a very watery bacon grease, whole flour mixture (not my favorite) , and boiled macaroni and tomato’s seasoned with salt and pepper.

      Reply to this comment
      • nene22 November 24, 15:51

        Boiled macaroni with (home canned) tomatoes with salt and pepper are great. There is a BIG difference between home canned and store bought. I, since, have found that if: I wash and cut up the tomatoes (skin and all); I blend them in a blender; I boil and cool them that and can freeze them in can and freeze Mason jars. Much easier and you can do a few at a time as they become available in the garden..

        Reply to this comment
        • Nita November 24, 16:08

          My grandmother who lived in OK during the depression sent me a recipe she used then. Hamburg fried with onion. After that is cooked you add cut up potatoes and some water. It is a surprisingly tasty dish. My other grandmother used to make “fried bread”. You take stale bread and fry it in butter and a little water (to soften the bread). She grew up on a farm so probably had plenty of butter. I made the Ritz cracker pie once and it was good but, since we but our apples at the orchard in the fall, it was cheaper and healthier to use apples.

          Reply to this comment
  9. Wolfee November 23, 23:44

    To day was the 3rd time I listens to the movie DIY Back up Generator and just like the first time I am kind of leery. I am wondering if any one listens to the Movie and says to them self: You can not make extra Energy out of nothing. I come from Germany and I am 79 years old so I have bin in Times I would describe as TSHF. I am working on it to get all the things together which i will need when its happen but The DIY Back UP Generator is a little to hard to swallow. 1945,1946,1947and 1948 are Years I will never forget in my life since, I grew up in East Germany.
    Now I come to one Question: Is that Video really on the level or is it Garbage .
    I suspect that it is garbage and the person that pays for the website should stop him
    or take the shame with him.

    Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck November 24, 03:41

      @Wolfee: I have made it a practice not to waste my time listening to an audio sales pitch. Ergo, I cannot pass judgment on the content of the sales pitch you refer to. However, as a life rule I follow the dictum: If you have to suspend your lifetime experience to accept what the seller says — DON’T. Follow your instincts. If your instincts say to you, “This is bull pucky.” they are right. It is bull pucky

      Not to defend obviously spurious advertising claims, the gentleman who put out this website, I believe, makes a sincere attempt to not carry obviously false advertising. Sometimes, as we all know two people can view the same scene and come to completely different opinions about it. If Mr. Davis, the originator of this website gets enough complaints about an ad, I believe he will pull it. Send him a message and outline just what you think is false advertising.

      Reply to this comment
    • dblu November 26, 22:04

      I’m not sure you and I are talking about the same generator plan, but I ordered the plan and decided it would not work. I asked some engineers to build it for me but they said it would not work. It might possibly work but the resulting product would be dangerous was the comment of one man. I asked for, and got, my money back.

      Reply to this comment
  10. diane November 24, 03:38

    HA HA HA! My mom and grandma STILL make vinegar pie. in fact, when i tell people i’m gonna make it for them, they all go “Eww”. their loss, i’m telling you. except we don’t make it with the flavorings or extra flour. we used to make it with the leftover pastry scraps during holidays after making pies. also, for mock apple pie, use sliced green pumpkin or any other green squash. once it’s sliced and spiced and cooked, it tastes just like apple pie. bet that’s also how bread pudding came into being, as bread was a cheap staple too.

    Reply to this comment
    • left coast chuck November 24, 03:45

      Now just a minute! Bread pudding is gourmet eating. I resent your implication that it is po’ folk eating. :>) You save up your crusts until you have enough to make a big dish of bread pudding and it doesn’t matter if the bread is stale or not.

      Reply to this comment
  11. rednig November 24, 05:53

    Prune pudding, from Europe. Remember the fairy tale kid and the plum pudding? European plums are all prunes.
    Mock apple pie! Never had it but I know town folks who ate it.
    Vinegar pie, yes! Like a tart apple pie.
    Mulligan stew, yep. Leftovers that go together and always add a quart of tomatoes. Old timers loved this.
    Mac & cheese. My great-grandmother made this before WWI. It was a dish for wealthy kids because back then most farmers dried off the cows when the pastures stopped growing, about November. Mom would not buy the box mix because it was all salt and food dye.
    Dandelions! Remember to boil once or twice to get rid of the bitter taste. The sauce is fried bacon, a little vinegar, sugar, water and corn starch (or flour). Use bacon ends and pour off most of the grease, then make the rest of it. Same old for wilted lettuce.
    SOS, standard fare at breakfast.
    Poor man’s meal is delicious. Kids scarf it down. Fry the potatoes and a little onion. Cut the hotdogs in 1” pieces, and when the taters are done, add the hotdogs. Bacon or ham can replace the ‘dogs. But, this is very tasty eating.
    Hoover stew. We call it pasta soup. Make the stew and about ten minutes before it’s done add the pasta. It draws out much of the water and leaves a stew. Think carrots, they take 20 minutes to cook.
    Italian ice was invented hundreds of years ago and was common in northern Europe as part of the Christmas feast. Use clean, fresh snow, pour cold juice or hot maple syrup over it and eat.
    Potato pancakes have been around since Inca days. Some folks like fried mashed potatoes, but not me. We had this at any meal.

    Reply to this comment
  12. JohnnyG November 25, 01:04

    You left out one of my favorites… Poor Mans Fish. We always had in on Fridays. Slice a nice flat Egg Plant lengthwise about a 1/4 inch thick. bread it up and fry, we always used bacon drippings for lard. Very tasty. JohnnyG.

    Reply to this comment
  13. JohnnyG November 25, 01:16

    As a kid in the late 40’s someone taught me how to build a radio using nothing more than 3 or 4 simple items… a double blade razor blade, a baby pin, a scrap of copper wire. I used the metal window screens we used in those days as an antenna but any ole scrap of wire worked and a scrap ear plug from a defunct transistor radio. No battery was required. Haven’t been able to duplicate it for my grand son. Help!

    Reply to this comment
    • GuitpickinCowHippy November 25, 02:38

      This is a variation on a crystal radio, which there are abundant plans for online. The razor blade radio was developed possibly by GIs during WWI, as the accounts I have read about this radio all pertain to their construction and use in the trenches. In this case the iron oxide layer on the old carbon steel razor blades served the same physical detecting function as does a silicon or germanium crystal (diode). A thin copper wire was drug across the rusty surface until the optimum location was found providing the best tuning/detecting function. Wideband and not very discriminating, so if you construct one today you might pick up multiple local AM broadcast signals simultaneously. You might also have problems today finding razor blades fabricated from a carbon steel, as stainless alloys are the norm, precisely to prevent rusting. You can order crystal diode radio kits online, marketed usually to children. I built my first one from scratch back in the 5th grade. Great introduction to radio.

      Reply to this comment
      • Clergylady November 25, 03:05

        I ordered a kit for each of my sons then a grandson. Great intro to radio and tech stuff for a kid. My dad and I built radios with different items. It was fascinating to me. A bit of junk and wire brought in radio broadcasts. I used wire window screens, wire coat hangers, odds and ends of thin wire strung around a window… all worked as antanas.

        Reply to this comment
        • Clergylady November 25, 03:09

          Later on my sons and I built computers for ourselves. Again good instruction for what you can do if you learn and try things fearlessly.

          Reply to this comment
  14. Clergylady November 25, 02:01

    my mother worked and supported her mother and nephew thrpugh the depression. One or two days a week they ate sliced cold Farina with butter and syrup if it was breakfast or a tarter sauce if it was dinner. I like the breakfast best.

    Reply to this comment
  15. KnifeArmory November 25, 04:03

    Wow, fascinating meals I would love to prepare. Especially the Tin Foil Hobo Dinners. The food that is the most unappealing is the Mock Apple Pie. That just sounds gross, and a peanut butter stuffed onion. I will have to try to duplicate some of these wonderful meals.

    Reply to this comment
  16. lucy November 29, 04:16

    Well, there’s one in every bunch, they say, and today must be my day.

    Once upon a time, while waiting for the movers to come, I got really hungry, and had nothing left but a couple slices of bread, half an onion, and some peanut butter. The thin slices of onion on top of the peanut butter on bread hit the spot. That’s how I like my peanut butter sandwiches ever since. Thought I had discovered a new taste sensation…

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