Recently I had the pleasure of hosting a show with my friend Margaret McDermott, who was born in 1925, so she does remember some of the foods that her mom made during that time.
She remembers Roosevelt saying that he would put a chicken in every pot. Her mother was a chef, and her dad just liked "plain old food," as she called it. He added ketchup to everything he ate. Her dad was a mechanic, and her mom worked in the airplane factory plant during WWII, like Rosie the Riveter. The year was 1929, the crash of the stock market and our banks. This was the beginning of the Great Depression, which lasted in this country until the beginning of WWII.
There were roughly 25 percent of Americans out of work, and I don't know how many people went hungry from that era. Thousands of them. However, Margaret's dad made sure there was plenty of food on the table, such as chicken, fruits and vegetables. Her mom would make chicken fricassee, and she remembers her mother making creamed peas over toast and adding canned tuna with it.
She remembers the vegetable gardens in front yards and neighbors sharing and working their gardens. People canned the bounties that they grew in the gardens. Some families ate better then others, depending on whether they had a job. My mom was born in 1925, as well, and my grandfather was a chef and ran a speakeasy, which they lived above before the Italians moved in and burned him out. So he went to work as a mechanic.
My mother said she could remember going to bed hungry and watching the soup lines and men away from their families trying to find work where they could. She said she remembers eating a lot of spinach, and when she grew up, she said that she would never eat spinach again. That part stayed with her. If anything had spinach in it, she wouldn't eat it. My father lived in Tennessee on a farm with 15 siblings. They grew their own food and traded for goods at market. They would cook mush with chicken in it; we call that polenta today. They would hunt on the mountain for extra meat. They didn't have money, but they had whole milk and made their own butter in a churn.
My granddad would sell a hog at market to buy shoes for the kids in the winter, and, by the time spring came, they wore shoes with cardboard soles. They went barefoot in the warm months. My grandmother wore my granddad's worn-out shoes because she didn't have a pair of shoes until my mom bought them for her. She would grow a garden and put up creamed corn, cabbage, sauerkraut and make mocked apple pie, which is a recipe that really came from the chuck wagons that used crackers for the pie. This pie really does look and taste like fresh apple pie, but there is not an apple to be found in it.
I interviewed some friends, Mitch and Denny Seymour, while I was in Washington, D.C., recently. Mitch said her background is Italian and her dad was a head of the Ninth Ward in Chicago and that she never wanted for anything during the Depression. They lived in the Ward with all of her Italian family around them. She said they had chicken and pasta, all homemade with her spaghetti sauce. She would watch them make all of the homemade breads. Sounds like it was wonderful for her, and she made me want to be there with her.
Now, I do have a funny story to tell you about Mitch. When she would make her spaghetti sauce, she would have to put it in the back of her station wagon after she made it to keep her kids from taking their breads and dipping it into the pot and eating of it before she got her dinner ready. Then, there is Denny, who has a different story. He remembers eating a lot of organs like the tongue, kidneys, sweetbreads, liver and onions. He ate lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He also remembers the vegetable gardens.
Mitch said he remembers Al Capone and that he was like the Robin Hood of that time. I have a friend, George, who said that his uncle worked for a hotel in town and that he used to be the runner for Capone. His uncle loved the running part because he got big tips from Capone; however, the hotel told him since he was getting big tips from Capone, then he could basically get paid by Capone. His tips were bigger then his salary. Whatever Capone took, he always shared part of with the people, but I know he did keep some for himself.
My Aunt Ene said that they lived on a farm in Hockley, Texas, and they always had food to eat because they raised their own foods and meats. They would share the meats with other families. They canned a lot and ate pickled tongue. She didn't have money but had a lot of hand-me-downs to wear. She said she still enjoys a good hand-me-down. My mother-in-law remembers eating scrambled eggs with calf brains, and that is a dish my dad loved, as well. I used to watch him make it as a kid, but I never let that dish pass though my mouth. My mother-in-law remembers getting just an orange and nuts for Christmas, and that made her very happy.
I want you to give these recipes a try from the Depression era, and there are a lot of them. My favorites are the rice and bread puddings.
I hope you have enjoyed this article on Depression foods, and all of it helps us remember how lucky we are to be living in this great nation after hearing some of these stories. I think of how lucky we still are and how far we have come.
Some of the folks I interviewed feel like we are a spoiled nation and that we have too much. They feel like they had the best generation and lived in the best of times. However they also remember their parents saying, "I just don't know what this generation is coming to!" My mother and father said the same thing. I laugh about it the same way my parents laughed at theirs. I believe that the best times are ahead of us and that our young will show us the way to their future, and it will be a brighter, smarter and safer generation. With that said, I wish them luck with all their cooking adventures.
Make sure to go to the Apple store and buy my first cookbook, "MadJon Holiday," at http://bit.ly/OOyiNz and make some holiday memories of your own.
Also, email me at email@example.com with any stories and recipes from an era gone by. Happy trails to you until we meet again.
Eileen F. Hutson, better known as MadJon, is ASTV's resident chef. Check out her weekly cooking episodes daily on ASTV Channel 95. Also, catch the episodes and recipes online at www.aikenstandard.com/astv/madjon/.