Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food from the Great Depression

I was watching the early talkie Our Blushing Brides (1930) the other day and one particular scene that left an impression on me. Three young ladies, mannequins at a swanky lingerie shop, Gerry (Joan Crawford), Frankie (Dorothy Sebastian), and Connie (Anita Page) are roommates, all still single and despereately poor. The three gals sit down to dinner which consists of canned salmon , bread, potatoes and some over-brewed coffee. Frankie groans at the sight of salmon yet again while Gerry says it can't be all foie gras at the Ritz. All three girls have prospective rich beaus and ruminating about their current situation just shows them how desperately they want an out.

Movies from the Great Depression are filled with scenes like this. I often remember a scene in Gold Diggers of 1933 where the roommates have a breakfast of stale bread and stolen milk. It's enough to make any dame want to be a gold digger. And how!

So how did people plan meals in the Great Depression? They had to be very creative. Not only did they have to make meals out of what was available but they also had to make do without a lot of basics that we today take for granted. Meals had to be very simple and with few ingredients.

A little while ago I found a series of YouTube videos about Depression-era cooking. A sweet 93-year old woman who lived through the Depression shares her recipes, stories and photographs in little installments called Great Depression Cooking with Clara. They are simply wonderful and I beg you to watch them. Here is one of the episodes:

Poorman's Feast

I decided to make this for my Sunday dinner and here is the result:

This was a rather inexpensive meal to make. I got a bag of lentils for $2, sandwich steak for $1.92, 1 head of romaine for $1 and a lemon for $0.40. The rice and olive oil I already had in my pantry. In the end, this meal cost me less than $6. The lentils and rice and meat will be my lunch tomorrow, so I got two meals for less than $3 each. Pretty good. Plus it was absolutely delicious!

Attention Vegetarians/Vegans! The rice & lentils are hearty enough that with the salad it's still a full meal. You can always add a simple dessert to round it off.

For more on classic films and the Great Depression, be sure to check out Katie's excellent post on Obscure Classics. (I swear, I thought of my post before Katie posted hers! Great minds think alike).


  1. Scenes like the one from Our Blushing Brides even turn up in some of the most unexpected places. A perfect example, with which I am sure classic horror movie fans are probably familiar with, is from the classic King Kong. Out of work actress Ann Darrow was so desperate for food that she was actually going to steal an apple. Producer Carl Denham actually gets a meeting with her simply by buying her a meal, which she eats as if she has been starving (which she probably has).

    I have to wonder if today's economic woes will be reflected in today's movies or if they will be ignored for the most part as they were in the Eighties (I can't recall any movie showing the economic hardships of that time beyond Raising Arizona).

  2. This is a wonderful blog concept!

    Clara is very sweet. She's seems like someone's ideal grandma!

    When I was a kid I heard my relatives talk many times about Depression era meals ... Clara's meat-lentil-rice meal would have been too expensive for my relatives.

    For meat, they would buy a large stick of baloney and slice it for various meals. Apparently the most favorite was baloney slices and onion pieces skillet fried.

    All sorts of watery soaps were also consumed. And even tho one of the relatives worked at a dairy, they rarely had milk or butter. They grew vegetables, raised chickens and rabbets and canned any left over veges and fruits.

    In fact, rarely did they buy food at a grocery except the most basisc of necessities.

  3. Mercurie - I think that's an interesting point. Will films today acknowledge the current recession? I hope they do, but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't.

    Bill - Well in the video, Clara says having some meat (albeit super thin) would be a real treat, hence the "poorman's feast". So this is actually a luxurious meal!

  4. This is a very interesting article and I am intrigued at your doing the actual research and making yourself a meal based on the video.
    I have seen this ladies videos, it never occurs to me to cook, ever. lol

  5. I'm going to have watch more of these videos for sure. I like that you made one of the dishes. I'll have to try and make one of these recipes.

  6. Great post! And great minds do think alike-- me and my dad are trying to assemble a "how to eat healthy for the next depression" kind of cookbooky thing. We tried interviewing my great aunt (97 years old) about what she used to eat in the 30's, but she misunderstood the question and just kept giving us recipes for typical Hungarian dishes. And boy did they like lard & grease! My great-great-grandfather would eat toast slathered with grease and salt for breakfast. One of her favorite meals was some kind of cabbage and jelly dish. y-u-c-k. Lentils with rice and lettuce sounds so much better :)
    (and as a vegan-- thanks for the tip!)

  7. You've done a nice experiment. Congratulations.

    Bill's mention of fried baloney was precisely the kind of meal that would be typical. (And remained typical for struggling families long after the Depression.) Good nutrition is actually a modern concept. Wealthy people did not necessarily eat healthy. For poor people the idea was just to fill up the belly with whatever. Some people, in the worst of situations, resorted to eating every other day.

    There is the well-known story of a teacher during the Great Depression who, when one of her students fainted in class, urged her to go home and eat. The child replied, "I can't. It's my sister's turn to eat."

    Our nation today struggles with obesity. A strange combination, economic recession and obesity.

  8. Thank you guys for your comments!

    Jacqueline- I took out the "nutrition" thing.

  9. That was a fun video, Raquelle, thanks for pointing it out. Clara is an excellent cooking teacher! I'll have to check out some of her other episodes.

    I always liked the scene where Clemenza made the spaghetti in The Godfather. In its way, that was an instructional video embedded in a crime saga. Wouldn't it be great if more movies did that? I would have loved to see Lana Turner make a Western omelette for John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, explaining the process step-by-step.

  10. Thanks Raquelle for this video !
    Clara is adorable and I like the fact that she's talking about how life was while the lens are being cooked... Just as if we were in the kitchen with her.
    I'm lucky to have a grandma who also talks about this period, her parents' little house where she was sharing her bed with her grandma and loved to wash and brush her grandma's long white hair in the afternoon while taking care of her 6 little sisters and brothers.

    Memory builds our history and global History.

    Thanks again for this great post (and for the vegetarian tip ;) )

    And as we say in France : Bon appétit !

  11. Brilliant! I love Clara's cooking!
    It's basic and simple but still refined in an unusual way just like the cooking of my grandma.

    In European films from 1925-35 the ideal lunch seemd to be slices of dark bread with butter and thin slices of cold veal roast, maybe some pickled cuecumber and a beer. Swell!

  12. Oh, darn. I wrote a comment for this post yesterday, but I guess it didn't take. Try, try again...

    First, I think this is a terrific post and a fabulous idea for a series. Please do more of these, Raquelle!

    I adore Clara. She's such a natural teacher. Hooray for the person who thought of filming her cooking lessons!

    I chuckled when I saw Kate's comment. I'm Hungarian too and my grandmother is a traditional Hungarian cook. She used to make a dish very similar to Kate's Aunt's cabbage and jelly fest. My grandmother used pig's feet and jelly - even worse! It's not fruit flavored Jello, either - it's more like chicken soup jello.

    I'm pretty sure my grandmother boiled cabbage as a vegetable dish, too. This always makes me think of how much the smell of cabbage cooking is spoken of in the depression era films. The heroine is usually quite disgusted by her apartment building because it smells of cabbage.

    Anyway, I hope you make this a feature, Raquelle - it's great!

  13. Nice coverage, I didn't know those two Depression films films. You might enjoy my blog covering Food Images in the Arts.
    Best regards,
    Bill Moore


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