The Great Depression left many people scared about where their next meal would come from. Unemployment, very low income, and breadlines wreaked havoc on the American diet for many impoverished people. So, what did people eat?
The diet of most people during the Great Depression depended on where they lived, their current and/or former vocation, and who their neighbors were. Farmers had food readily available.
Since not everyone lived on a farm, other sources of food had to be sought out. People who lived in the cities may have had it harder to find varieties of food, and rural residents turned to other sources.
Farmers had the luxury of having been in the food-production business before the Great Depression. They had the advantage of having chickens and, of course, eggs. Pigs, cows, and other farm animals were sources of various meats to eat on farms and in farming communities.
They also had the luxury of their foods reproducing. Large crops of grains provided breads and other foods, and still yielded sellable crops year after year. Gardens and fruit orchards provided more variety and bartering power.
Other Rural Residents
Remote, small towns near wooded areas were fortunate to have access to small gardens as well, but also wildlife. Many people took to the woods and fields more often to hunt deer, hogs, rabbits, and squirrels, and even snakes. Some even ate opossums. They also had the luxury of streams and rivers in which to catch fish.
Rural residents also bartered with farmers over the higher-quality game they shot or trapped, like deer and hogs, in order to get vegetables and fruits in their diets on occasion.
Another source of variety in rural America was social gatherings, usually at churches. “Dinner on the Ground,” or “Church Socials”, where church folk gathered to share a meal, brought many one-dish meals that people could share, and new and clever recipes, such as various pot dishes or casseroles.
Some foods that became customary later were not partaken of in the same way back then. Eggs were in supply for some people, but they tended not to eat them for breakfast, but in egg sandwiches for a mid-day meal.
City people were probably the hardest hit in regard to food supplies. Unemployment was extremely high, and many people simply ran out of money, and could not buy food. Many ended up homeless, and thus had nowhere to store foodstuffs.
Charitable organizations, along with government entities, set up bread and food lines, handing out bread and canned goods when they were in supply, and opening soup kitchens to serve hot meals. Soup was more common because it was easy, and meals could be stretched to feed more people by simply adding water.
Radio shows and magazines helped by sharing clever recipes and other ideas that stretched the budget, knowing many were struggling to get by.
Easy recipes with few ingredients became popular as a result. Creamed chicken on biscuits, biscuits and syrup, macaroni and cheese, creamed chipped beef on toast, creamed tuna on toast, are just a few such recipes, and many families passed those depression-era meals down as favorite family meals.
Resourcefulness Kept Food on the Table
People during the Great Depression were forced by circumstances to think outside the box. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and many new ideas and products concerning foods were invented during the Depression.
Cakes were made without butter and eggs; Nabisco took advantage by selling graham crackers and billing them as great for pie crusts. Biscuits were made without yeast, using other agents to attempt to leaven the dough.
“Depression Candy” made from boiled potatoes and powdered sugar, and peanut butter, became popular in the south during that time.
Meatloaf was commonly served, as it was a way to make ground beef go further, to serve more meals, by combining the tougher cuts of meat that had been ground up with other fillers, such as crackers, or bread, oats, tapioca, and other cereals. It was a very filling and tasty recipe.
The Best and Worst of Times
While the term “depression” is meant to describe the collapse of the financial markets and the resulting economic downturn, it instead invokes an idea of unhappiness, which is perhaps fitting for the times.
But, many survivors of the Great Depression claimed never to have gone hungry, and that times, though tough, were simple, and for many, happy times.