Food is a time capsule that, when you look beyond the plate, reveals a story about people – about where they’ve been and what they’ve endured. The ingredients are a recipe that reveals where people have been or where they originated, and the techniques can show you whose hands that meal was once prepared by. In our globalized world we oftentimes discuss how culture can influence cuisine, but specific moments in history play a role in what eat and how we eat it. There are some events in history that are so impactful they leave a deep impression on dishes for generations to come, forever changing our culinary landscape. For American cuisine that moment was the Great Depression.
The Great Depression, which started in 1929 and continued into the 1930’s, was a time of food scarcity. Frugality and practicality outweighed cultural relevancy, which led to a lot of dishes that were less about heritage and more about scraping together whatever ingredients were easily accessible and filling. According to the book A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression authored by historians Andrew Coe and Jane Ziegelman, the growing fields of home economics and culinary sciences further focused the Depression-era menu on pragmatic dishes that would meet newly developed nutritional standards. The meals they developed were heavy, high in calories, and had a stick-to-your-ribs quality that helped stave off hunger.
Milk gained prominence during the Great Depression because it was considered a “complete food,” Coe and Ziegelman report, meaning it had a lot of nutritional value. Because milk has protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and sugar for energy it appears in a lot of Depression Era recipes. It added creaminess to soups like potato soup and pea soup, and a thickness to casseroles, like spaghetti and boiled carrots which was a meal heavily promoted by Elenore Roosevelt. Milk was also the base to a thick white sauce made of milk, salt, pepper, flour and butter or margarine, which appears in a multitude of dishes including creamed chipped beef, a dish made of salty strips of dried beef swimming in that dairy-based sauce. Creamed chipped beef is a nostalgic dish that’s still popular today as a breakfast item in many diners across America.
Though dessert is the most indulgent and sometimes luxurious course of the meal, Depression Era desserts were simple comforts that packed a lot of fat and a lot of sugar. Milk was also the core to many dessert recipes like rice pudding, a variety of bread puddings, frozen fruit salads made by freezing whipped cream, and, if your pantry was decently stocked, dairy made its way into cakes too – but not all cakes.
The Great Depression birthed dairy free and eggless cakes, also known as “wacky cakes.” When pantry staples were sparse, home cooks made substitutions. To make these Depression cakes, butter was replaced with vegetable oil, and eggs and other dairy were replaced with vinegar and baking soda. The reaction of the vinegar and baking soda helped give cakes their recognizable light and fluffy texture.
These cakes made a resurgence during World War II in a series of rations cookbooks. Though some of these rations cookbooks were published by government organizations like the Bureau of Home Economics U.S. Department of Agriculture, some rations cookbooks were published by large convenience food companies like the General Foods Corporation – a company that despite the economic downturn, actually flourished during the Great Depression.
The Rise of Large Food Brands
Before it was known as General Foods Corporation (which merged with Kraft Foods in 1990) it was the Postum Cereal Company founded by C.W. Post in 1895. The core of their business was cereal (their first cereal product being Grape-Nuts, which is still produced today) until in 1914 when Post passed away, leaving the company to be run by his 27-year-old daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post. The young Post was an excellent business woman, and in the four years leading up to the Great Depression, she made a series of acquisitions that helped solidify her company’s success during those lean Depression years. Some of the most notable acquisitions included Jell-O, Maxwell House coffee, Minute Tapioca, Swans Down flour, Franklin Baker coconut, Walter Baker chocolate, and in 1929, the year the Great Depression began, she acquired Birdseye frozen food. That same year, with a robust portfolio of convenience products, Post renamed the company General Foods Corporation.
The timing of these acquisitions couldn’t have been more perfect. The mass production of convenience products like powdered coffee, Jell-O mix, instant tapioca, and all-purpose flour were easily accessible to most families and, because of how the products were packaged, they had a long shelf life. Canned foods, jar foods, powdered foods, dry goods, and anything that was preserved and could be stored for long periods of time became essential during the Great Depression.
One of the largest game changers was refrigeration technology. Clarence Frank Birdseye II was ahead of his time when he was figuring out how to freeze vegetables and meats, but by the time Post acquired his company and his process to commercially produce frozen foods, many Americans already had refrigerators in their own homes. When the Great Depression hit, stocking up on frozen foods kept families fed during times of uncertainty.
Another advancement was the construction of streets and highways that were built by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. According to historians Coe and Ziegelman, the large-scale roadworks projects, which resulted in thousands of miles of roads and bridges, made shipping of these commercial food products easier. It also allowed farmers to get their products farther and expanded the seasons of fruits and vegetables.These developments paved the way for national food distribution, brought on the advent of big box grocery stores, and helped usher in the Age of Convenience.
Candy: The Ultimate Depression-Proof Food
There’s a saying that goes that candy is one of the few depression and recession-proof foods. When the economy goes down, candy seems to remain unimpacted. These sugary treats were inexpensive, and an easy source of calories for those who were in a financial pinch. It was during the Great Depression that a lot of the sweets we enjoy today actually got their start. In the book Candy: The Sweet History, author Beth Kimmerle explores how candy and other sugary confections – how they were made and consumed – often reflected what was happening in society at the time, and this was very true of the Great Depression.
The early 1930s saw the rise of candy bars. According to Kimmerle, bars of chocolate covered nougats, nuts, and caramels were considered affordable meal replacements. Some were named Chicken Dinner and Denver Sandwich, which helped market these candy bars as full, nourishing meals. Other candy bars with names like PayDay and 5th Avenue, were meant for a quick laugh and to lift up people’s spirits.
Another cleverly named confection from the Great Depression was Rocky Road ice cream created by William Dreyer and Joseph Edy in Oakland, California. Though the ice cream, a chocolate-based ice cream loaded with nuts and marshmallows, was developed in March of 1929, it was named Rocky Road after the market crashed later that year. According to Dreyer and Edy they named it Rocky Road, “to give folks something to smile about” during a difficult time.
So the next time you find comfort in a bowl of potato soup, order a creamed chipped beef on toast for breakfast, bite into a decadent chocolate bar, or pick up a pint of Rocky Road ice cream at a big box grocery store, think about how, despite the challenges, Americans faced the Great Depression with ingenuity, resilience, and at certain times, with humor.