The Great Depression, with all of its hardships, was one of the most prolific times in the history of the American diet. This period required homemakers to develop creative new ways to feed their families, sometimes for less than pennies a day. But as the economy improved and more Americans went back to work, many of these dinnertime staples simply faded out of style.
Yet they haven’t faded from memory. Here are 10 Great Depression foods that seemed strange and even weird at the time.
1. Prune Pudding
Prunes were a humble, inexpensive food source during the Depression. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt actually made headlines by pressuring her husband to eat prune pudding when guests came to the White House for a visit. Why prunes? They were easily stored and didn’t cost as much as other fresh fruits.
2. Dandelion salad
Foraging was not uncommon during the Great Depression, and it was easy and free to scavenge in the backyard for edible greens. Dandelions weren’t the only produce of choice; many Depression-era homesteaders also made soups or salads out of burdock root, wild onions and other weeds. Although dandelion salad is still popular in many cultures today, it’s typically accompanied by sweet or tangy ingredients to offset the bitterness of the plant.
3. Fish …. anything
Fishing was a popular pastime during this era, not just because it was an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday, but also because it put food on the table! A weekend fish fry would produce enough leftovers for the entire week. Bones, heads and tails could be used for soup or gravy stock.
4. Creamed chipped beef
This curious dish originated in Pennsylvania Dutch country and consisted of salted beef and milk. Any kind of beef-like meat could be used (cows were difficult and expensive to raise, so goats or wild game could also be used).
It was typically served on toast and became a staple for soldiers fighting overseas during World War II. Ever heard your grandparents talk about you-know-what on a shingle? This is it!
5. Ritz cracker crust
The purpose behind this crust has nothing to do with the crust itself, but what the buttery flavor of the Ritz crackers does for the apples. Apples were in short supply during the Depression, so the rich flavor of the crackers helped to supplement the limited apple flavor.
6. Spaghetti with boiled carrots
Carrots were easy to grow in most homestead gardens during the Great Depression. As a result, spaghetti with boiled carrots—with the addition of a simple white sauce—was a heavily promoted, relatively nutritious dish in schools throughout the country.
7. Meatless loaf
When raising livestock was impractical or impossible, many Depression-era cooks turned to meatless loaves for sustenance. Made out of vegetarian ingredients such as peanuts, rice, cottage cheese and flour, these cakes were popular before tofu was even a thing.
8. Vinegar pie
As mentioned, fruits were in low supply and high demand during the Great Depression. During cold winter months, most families found themselves without any fruit at all. What to do about dessert? Many bakers added vinegar to a mixture of spices (such as cinnamon and cloves) and—if fortunate enough—butter or cream to create a low-cost version of a pie or cobbler.
9. Peanut butter stuffed onions
This dish was commonly suggested in newspapers and magazines as a nutritious and delicious recipe for any family’s table. Although the glop wasn’t popular for its taste, texture or nutritive qualities, it must have contributed to at least a small uptick in oral hygiene.
10. Kraft macaroni and cheese — wait, what?
James Lewis Kraft, the founder of Kraft foods, patented the process of emulsifying and powdering processed cheese in order to give it a longer shelf life—a necessity during this time period. Although the packaged dish was originally sold as a bag of pasta with a package of powdered cheese attached to it, it still exists today as one of the few Depression-era meals with lasting popularity in American households.
Making ends meet was tough during the Great Depression, but with some creative thinking and adventurous palates, these homesteaders made the most of whatever they were given. Whether you’re planning meals for a large family or on your homestead, keep these tips in mind for ultimate success in living off the land.
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