Dinner on a (very tight) budget - Depression-era meals are back amid economic downturn
By Corbin Crable
In these times when funds are low and grocery bills are high, many of us have turned to the practices of family members who came before us. If you’ve had a parent, aunt, uncle or other family member live through the Great Depression (or maybe you did yourself!), then you know that in lean times, you had to get creative with how you kept your family fed.
Depression-era recipes made a comeback long before the coronavirus, with those who survived it using social media to share their favorite meals. Those types of meals aren’t just useful to hungry college students or those right out of school – they’re dishes that just about all of us would be smart to try right now.
One social media star who rose to prominence in recent years was Clara Cannucciari, who ascended to social media fame with her cooking show, “Great Depression Cooking” (you can still find archived episodes on YouTube). In it, Clara shared some of the recipes she remembers best from her youth during the Depression. The series ran from 2007 to 20111, and Clara died at the age of 98 in 2013, but her son, Christopher, continues to post archived episodes to YouTube.
If you’ve ever seen Clara at work in the kitchen, it feels like watching a Sicilian mother or grandmother crafting meals that will be the talk of her family for generations to come. But there’s nothing elaborate about the dishes. They’re simple, they’re easy on the wallet, and, perhaps most importantly, they’re full of flavor.
Here are a few favorites from various online chefs, many of them variations on Clara’s own recipes. Give your debit card a breather and give them a try (and you can find more about Clara at www.welcometoclaraskitchen.com).
Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast. (photo courtesy FrugalUpstate.com)
Creamed Chipped Beef
More commonly referred to as “Sh*t on a Shingle,” this entrée became popular during both World Wars because it was cheap to make, and the ingredients were easily accessible. It’s dried beef with a simple sauce of milk, flour and butter, all served on wedges of toast.
4 tablespoons of butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon black pepper
4 ½ ounces dried beef, cut into strips
Texas toast slices (or biscuits, if desired)
Step 1: Melt butter in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until bubbling. Stir in flour, and then add whole milk, whisking until flour is completely incorporated. Stir constantly until the sauce has thickened.
Step 2: Add pepper and strips of dried beef to sauce mixture, stirring until pepper is incorporated and beef is evenly coated. Spoon over Texas toast or biscuit halves; serve warm and top with additional ground pepper, if desired.
The Poor Man’s Meal. (photo courtesy Skinnyishdish.com)
Poor Man’s Meal
One of Clara’s most popular episodes, this recipe makes liberal use of potatoes, since they’re filling. During the Depression, however, a large bag cost $1, which at the time was considered costly. Sliced hot dogs or ground beef supply the protein for this dish.
1 pound ground beef
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
5 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 large onion, sliced
2 cans (10 ¾ ounces each) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
½ cup 2% milk
Minced fresh parsley
Step 1: In a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Season with pepper and garlic powder. Layer the beef, potatoes and onion slices in a shallow, 2-quart baking dish. Combine soup and milk; pour over all.
Step 2: Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 ½ hours or until potatoes are tender. Garnish with parsley.
Hoover Stew. (photo courtesy Apartmenteats.com)
Named for U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who served as president during the Depression’s first years, this stew brings together some favorites you’ll remember from childhood, including hot dogs and macaroni (an aside – did you know that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was invented during the Depression?).
1 (16 ounce) box of elbow macaroni or any mix of pastas that will cook in approximately the same time.
2 (16 ounce) cans of stewed tomatoes or whole tomatoes
1 (16 ounce) package of hot dogs
1 (16 ounce) can of corn (a can of beans also may be added for protein)
Step 1: Cook macaroni according to the instructions on the box.
Step 2: While it cooks, slice the hot dogs into very thin “coins.”
Step 3: Open cans of tomatoes, beans (if using) and corn, but do not drain corn or tomatoes. Beans may be rinsed.
Step 4: Combine the contents of the cans and the hot dog slices into a large pot and bring to a simmer.
Step 5: Break up the tomatoes into small chunks as the mixture heats.
Step 6: Drain the macaroni when it is almost done. Reserve the cooking water to add to the pot if needed.
Step 7: Add the macaroni to the tomato mixture in the pot and continue simmering until all of the ingredients are thoroughly heated. Season as desired with salt and pepper. Add any reserved cooking water from the macaroni to keep it from becoming dry. Serve.
Water pie. (photo courtesy Parade.com)
And for dessert: Water Pie
Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it’s possible. Just a few simple ingredients and you’re all set. Take a look!
1 (9-inch) deep-dish pie crust, unbaked
1 ½ cups water
4 Tbsp flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 Tbsp butter
Step 1: Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and set empty pie crust on a baking sheet.
Step 2: Pour 1 ½ cups water into the pie crust.
Step 3: In a small bowl, stir together flour and sugar. Sprinkle evenly over water in crust. Don’t stir.
Step 4: Drizzle vanilla over water in pie crust. Place pats of butter on top of this.
Step 5: Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 and cover sides of crust if needed to prevent burning. Continue cooking for an additional 30 minutes.
Step 6: Pie will be watery when you pull it out of the oven but will gel as it cools. Allow to cool completely and then cover and place in the fridge until chilled before cutting.
Like the old song proclaims, let’s hope it’s not too long before “happy days are here again” and you can return to your own culinary routine. But until that happens, give these Depression-era recipes a try and let us know what you think.
Corbin Crable can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org