Sunday, March 11, 2007

We Learned to Eat from the Depression

Those of us who are baby boomers were raised by parents who were children of the great depression, or who were influenced by the forced frugality of their parents during this period of extreme deprivation. There are few of us who don’t remember the admonitions of our parents to eat everything set in front of us because, “there are children starving in India”, as though our eating habits could help them. The “clean plate club” was the illusory reward toward which we were prodded. Thus, for us, eating became a moral imperative, not just an activity we did to sustain life and maintain our energy levels. Is it any wonder that eating, food, and the rituals surrounding their preparation, became the sacraments of “good children” and later “good adults”? Is it also any wonder that those of us who aspired to sainthood became fat?

No doubt our parents were afraid that their children were going to starve and were just being good parents. Have we passed this learned fear on to our progeny?

How did people eat during the depression? I looked at my copy of the Gleaner’s cookbook, “Good Things to Eat” published by the Gleaners, a women’s group of the First Christian Church, New Castle, Indiana, published in 1938, from my collection of cookbooks (you see, as a good child, I have my scriptures). From it, it seems that in the largely rural Midwest, people made do with what they had. Almost everyone who was able raised a garden and perhaps a few chickens for eggs. Pork was cheap, but still used sparingly. Chicken was for Sunday dinner or special occasions. Meat protein was expensive and scarce, and carbohydrates were the main fare. Cabbage, when in season, was inexpensive and plentiful. I am going to share a few of these recipes.

Meat Courses

Mock Chicken Dumplings

1 pound pork chops
2 eggs, hard-cooked

1 quart flour
1/2 t baking powder
1 egg
Water to make a stiff dough
Pinch salt

“Put chops on to boil in enough water to cover. Chop eggs fine and add to pork chops when about half done. Next add dumplings, rolled one-fourth inch thick and cut into squares. Add to pork chops and season to taste with salt and pepper, and cook until done.”

This recipe reflects the availability of eggs and the need to stretch the meat with dumplings to provide calories and energy for the family. If chicken had been readily available, there would be no need to make “mock” chicken using pork as a less expensive substitute.

Jellied Veal

1 veal knuckle
2 bay leaves
1 small onion
2 pimientos
3 cloves boiled eggs if desired

“Cook [boil] until meat is tender and remove from broth. There should be about 1 cup of broth. Strain and let cool. Skim grease from top. Grind or cut meat up and add pimientos; add eggs, if used. Combine meat and broth. Heat and pour into pan to jell.”

Sandwich Fillings

Sandwiches were then, as now, convenient and portable. They could be taken to the fields or the workplace, and fill the hungry bellies of the family at home.

Cheese Pimiento Filling

2 eggs
1 pint boiling water
1-1/2 T flour
1 10 cent can pimiento
2 T butter
1 10 cent cream cheese
2 T sugar

“Mix eggs with flour, sugar and butter. Stir in boiling water and set it on flame until it thickens, stirring well. Add pimientos, chopped fine and grated cheese. Use vinegar to taste. Spread on thin slices of buttered bread, using lettuce leaf, if desired.”


1/2 pound boiled ham
4 tender stalks of celery
3 hard-cooked eggs
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup nut meats

Grind ham and mix with riced eggs, chopped nuts and the chopped celery. Lettuce leaves or thin slice of pickles may be placed between bread.

Sandwich Combinations

Equal parts of finely cut nuts and grated cheese with salad dressing.

Peanut butter thinned with liquid from strawberry jam.

Raisins and nutmeats chopped fine and moistened with grape juice.


Hot German Potato Salad

6 Medium potatoes
1 egg, beaten
2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
4 T vinegar
4 slices bacon, diced
1-3/4 t salt
1/4 cup minced onion

“Cook the potatoes with the skins on until tender, drain. Peel and slice while still hot, then add the hard-cooked eggs. Meanwhile, fry the bacon and onion until delicately browned; strain, reserving the bacon fat. Add the onion and bacon to the potato mixture, then add the bacon fat slowly to the beaten egg, beating meanwhile. Add the vinegar and salt to the egg mixture and pour over the potato mixture. Mix well and heat in a double boiler. Serve on a platter garnished with lettuce. Serves 6. For a hearty group, make twice this recipe.”

Hot Slaw

Head of cabbage
1 egg
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 T butter
1/2 cup vinegar
1 T flour

“Cut cabbage fine and cook in a small amount of water, salted to taste. When cabbage is tender, drain off water and add dressing made as follows: Beat up egg and add sugar, vinegar, flour, cream and butter and pour over cabbage. Return to fire and cook until dressing thickens.”

Clearly, even among salads, the emphasis was on providing calories for sustenance. These salads may have been the only dish served at some meals.


Au Gratin Potatoes

1 quart potatoes
1 t salt
1 small onion
1/2 t pepper
1/2 can pimiento
1 pint milk
2 T flour
1/2 pound cheese
2 T butter

“Cube potatoes, add onions, cook in salt water until tender. Cut pimiento into fine pieces, add and cook 5 minutes longer. Drain and put into baking dish. Blend flour, butter, salt and pepper smoothly. Add milk and cheese. Cook until it bubbles, then pour over potatoes and bake until a golden brown.”

Cheese Strata (interestingly included in the section on vegetables)

1-1/2 cups finely cut or grated cheese
1 t salt
4 T butter
2 cups milk
4 T flour
thin slices of bread

“Make a white sauce. [The white sauce is the key to many sauces and gravies. It's surprising how many cooks are afraid of this simple starting point, trying such devices as the granular flours like "Wondra ®" to try and avoid lumps. Even this old cookbook recommends adding flour and water in a jar shaking and adding the mixture to the soups and gravies as a thickener. The basic formula is 2:2:1 butter or drippings, to flour to liquid. The secret is to melt the butter or heat the drippings, add the flour all-at-once and blend this roux with the back of a wooden spoon until smooth. Let the mixture stay on the heat a few seconds until it bubbles gently--this cooks the flour and removes any raw uncooked flavor from the flour. Remove from heat. Add the cold liquid all at once and stir continuously with a figure eight motion over a low heat until the sauce just starts to bubble-perfect white sauce or gravy every time.] Place a layer of bread in a buttered baking dish and pour some of the white sauce on it, then a layer of cheese alternately. Finish with white sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 30 minutes in a moderate oven.”

Cabbage Au Gratin

2 cups shredded cabbage
1/2 t salt
1-1/2 cups boiling water
seasoned bread crumbs

3 T flour
1/8 t pepper
3 T flour
1-1/3 cups grated cheese
1-1/3 cups milk
1 cup grated cheese
1/4 t salt

“Cook cabbage in salt water 10 minutes. Alternate layers in baking dish and cover with bread crumbs and cheese. Bake 5 minutes at 475 degrees then lower to 275 degrees and bake for 20 minutes.”

Harvard Beets

6 medium sized beets
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vinegar
1 T corn starch
1/8 t salt

Cook beets, remove skins and slice. Make a sauce by cooking sugar, corn starch, water and vinegar together for 5 minutes. Add salt. Pour over beets. Let stand a few minutes before serving.

Sweet Potato Balls

2 Lb sweet potatoes
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
15 marshmallows
butter size of egg
Bran flakes

“Boil sweet potatoes in salt water. Drain, mash and cool potatoes. Then make small cakes, place a marshmallow in center. Make into ball, then roll in bran flakes. Place in a pan and add the syrup.
Syrup: Boil sugar and butter to a heavy syrup, cool. Pour over the potato balls. Place in oven until they begin to pop open.”


Apple Charlotte

2 cups milk
1 egg
1 T butter
toasted bread

Put 1 T butter in pudding pan and add a layer of buttered toast then a layer of sliced apples. Sprinkle with sugar and nutmeg and add a layer of raisins. Repeat until dish is full, with toast on top. Beat 1 egg and add 2 cups of milk and pour over above. Bake until apples are tender and serve with cream and sugar.

Persimmon Pudding (a local favorite)

2 boxes persimmons *
1/2 t salt
4 eggs
3 cups sugar
1 t soda
4 cups flour
2 quarts milk
butter size of an egg

*Note: The persimmons described here are the small American ones, not the large Japanese ones and they should be ripe (i.e. soft). A box as described here is about the size of a strawberry box. Japanese persimmons can be used here, but, they should be steamed until soft first. Joel

“Rub the fruit through colander. Take out seeds and any peeling left. Stir sugar into persimmons. Beat eggs light and add to mixture. Then, add 2 cups of flour and about 1 pint of the milk. Stir until there are no lumps, then stir in the remainder of flour and milk. Dissolve soda in small quantity of milk and add to mixture. Cut butter and put on top before putting in oven. When it begins to rise, take from oven and stir down. Do this three or four times during the baking. Do not stir for the last 15 minutes. Bake 1 hour. Top with whipped cream. Serves 12 or more.”

Suet Pudding

1 cup chopped suet
3 cups flour
1 cup molasses
1 pint raisins
1 cup sweet milk
1 t soda

“Mix thoroughly and steam for two hours.” [Suet is the hard fat that surrounds the kidneys and loins in beef. A cup contains 1937 Calories, 3.4 g protein, 213.19 g fat, and no carbohydrate.]

These are a few of the foods that our forbears ate and survived on. They were concerned with maximizing calories, utilizing protein, and filling their children to face an uncertain world. This is the legacy that we learned from our parents. What we do now to change our dietary habits is up to us.

Here is my recap from yesterday.

Daily Dietary Recap-3/10/2007
Calories Protein Carbohydrates SodiumFat % Calories from Fat
1167.9 40.01 g 184.71 g908.27 mg 22.04 g 16.98%

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