The Unusual Foods People Ate During The Great Depression

Those who lived during the Great Depression remember it being one of the worst economic periods in American history. The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939, and during its lowest point in 1933, about 15 million Americans were unemployed. This meant that families needed to be extra savvy with their money when it came to everyday needs. Several odd, but cheap, food dishes were invented during this time period, including prune pudding, vinegar pie, and dandelion salad. Continue reading to discover some of the most unusual foods from the Great Depression.

People Had To Dig In Their Yards To Make Dandelion Salad

two women preparing a dandelion salad
Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Salads from foraged greens had been used centuries before the Great Depression. However, they became popular during this time because they were free to make. All people would have to do is forage around their yard or other grassy areas to find the leaves.

Most of the foods during the Great Depression were relatively bland, but the dandelion salad added some vitamins to people’s diets. The leaves could be made into salads or cooked with other vegetables. It’s important to note that people didn’t eat the actual dandelion flower.

Vinegar Pie Was Made In Desperation

Migrant agricultural worker dishing up the noonday lunch of blackberry pie while camped by the roadside
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

NPR notes that some pies during the Great Depression were called “desperation pies.” People were forced to use other ingredients to substitute for ones that weren’t available or were too expensive. A vinegar pie was the “desperation” version of a lemon meringue pie.

“If you want a lemon meringue pie, but you have no lemons, the vinegar gets the tartness like the lemon,” said food author Joanne Raetz Stuttgen. The pie would be made with very few ingredients including butter, flour, sugar, and vinegar.

Prune Pudding Was A Symbol Of The Era

Men eating bread and soup in a breadline during the great depression
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Prunes were one of the most inexpensive fruits during the Great Depression. Prune pudding, or prune whip, was one of the most common desserts of the decade, which was made with sugar, corn starch, and boiled or dried prunes.

According to the Boston Globe, this dessert is a symbol of this time period because Eleanor Roosevelt made sure it was served in the White House. She did this to show solidarity with those who were struggling to survive in their day-to-day lives. Most only had small servings of the dish because it was very efficient at colon-cleansing.

People Actually Ate Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions

Migrant agricultural worker from Tennessee, formerly a railroad man, eating dinner in his shack
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Bureau of Home Economics would promote foods to help the economy during the Great Depression. One of the most peculiar foods they chose to promote was peanut butter-stuffed onions. These only required two ingredients, which were readily available to the poor.

In order to make the dish, people would bake the onions, cut out a piece of it, and fill it with peanut butter. Although this was a popular meal or snack during the era, it wasn’t favored by many people.

Mulligan Stew Was Made By Hobos

Chief of the Hobo Colony at Charlton and West Streets sampling the Mulligan Stew
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

This photo shows the origin of Mulligan stew. It began in American hobo camps around the time of the Great Depression. It was referred to as a “community stew” because the hobos in the camps would usually contribute random ingredients that were available to them and combine them into a stew.

These ingredients can be anything from potatoes, vegetables, beans, and various meats. The meats are a little more uncommon with sources such as squirrels or possums. Food author Geri Clouston says that there were times the hobos would add lint for flavor.

Amish Cold Milk Soup Is Still Eaten Today

Workers enjoying the food in Al Capone's free soup kitchen for the unemployed
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

According to So Yummy, cold milk soup has been a staple in Amish households since the Great Depression. This dish is very simple and is made by pouring milk into a bowl and adding bananas and sugar. Those who’ve tried it say it tastes like cereal without actual cereal.

Amish cold milk soup was eaten a lot during the Great Depression because it was economical. Milk was one of the most easily accessible items during this time, so people found recipes that revolved around it.

Spaghetti With Boiled Carrots And White Sauce Was Approved By Eleanor Roosevelt

Mealtime in a hand-built shelter
S. R. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
S. R. Gaiger/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

San Francisco Public Radio shared the origins of a unique dish from the Great Depression. Spaghetti with boiled carrots and white sauce was promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Bureau of Home Economics across schools and colleges. It required few ingredients and was relatively easy to make.

The spaghetti was supposed to be cooked for 25 minutes, so it would have a mushy texture. Then, it was mixed with equally mushy boiled carrots. Next, a white sauce was made with milk, flour, salt, butter, and pepper. Finally, the spaghetti, carrots, and white sauce were poured into a tray and baked into a casserole.

How Red Velvet Cake Turns Red

eating red velvet cake with mint with a fork
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Red velvet cake may seem like a normal dessert option today, but it was something most had never seen before during the Great Depression. During the era, it was called “a cousin of chocolate cake” because it was meant to taste similar.

The red color came from the combination of vinegar or vegetable oil and buttermilk with a small hint of cocoa powder. According to Drivepedia, the red color was a way of distracting the eater from thinking it wasn’t as rich as chocolate cake.

Garbage Plates Are Quite A Mouthful

people eating during the great depression
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

A garbage plate may seem like a fitting name for a food dish from the Great Depression, but this one wasn’t made from actual garbage. Common ingredients found in a garbage plate included macaroni salad, home fries, baked beans, sausage, cheeseburger, beef chili, white onions, mustard, ketchup, and hot sauce.

So Yummy says that people can still find this dish in restaurants today, including a diner in Rochester, New York. Updated versions have included fish fry, grilled cheese, veggie burgers, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, and hot dogs.

Rabbit Stew And Dumplings Was Resourceful

men eating a meal during the great depression
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

During the Great Depression, people didn’t always have a choice about what was available for them to eat. Many people had to turn to alternative food sources. One of the common alternatives included rabbits. Typically, people would consume whatever they could of the rabbit.

Then, people would stir-fry the leftover rabbit meat and make it into a stew. According to Wessels Living History Farm, the stew would include the rabbit meat, dumplings, carrots, onions, and gravy. Making the rabbit meat into several meals was important because people needed to stretch their ingredients into as many days as they could.

What’s Inside A Poor Man’s Meal

Unemployed man Alfred Smith and his family eating their main meal
Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A “poor man’s meal” was a way for people to get a cheap, yet hearty meal. Most Americans were out of work, so they needed to find inexpensive ways to feed themselves and their families.

A poor man’s meal would usually include fried potatoes, onions, and hotdogs. Those who were lucky enough would top it with tomato sauce. The Dr. Pepper Museum believes that the invention of this dish during the Great Depression led to the creation of the iconic Chicago Dog (a hot dog with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickle spears, sport peppers, celery salt, and lettuce).

Creamed Chipped Beef On Toast Has A Funny Nickname

Black and white photograph of spectators at a county fair eating lunch
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

People who lived during the Great Depression had to get used to foods that lacked in flavor, which was especially true for creamed chipped beef on toast. NPR stated that the dish earned a hilarious nickname where the toast was called a shingle by American soldiers.

Creamed chipped beef on toast is made with dried beef mixed with a sauce made out of milk, flour, and a lot of butter. The mixture is scooped onto a piece of toast or crackers and can be topped with pepper or parsley.

Bologna Casserole Was Packed With Flavor

Homeless men eating in the main dining hall
Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Some may think of bologna as a lunch meat for sandwiches, but during the Great Depression people needed to get creative with their limited ingredients. Bologna was readily available, so it was made into a casserole.

So Yummy says that typical ingredients in a bologna casserole were cheddar cheese, beans, canned chili, onions, garlic, peppers, bacon, canned pork, and bologna. Those who ate it thought it was one of the most flavorful dishes of the era, which was rare to find.

The Good And Bad Of Milkorno

Unemployed miners on a hunger march
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Home economics experts at Cornell University were influencing the American nutritional habits during the Great Depression. According to the Cornell University Library, a team led by Flora Rose developed a cereal with tons of vitamins and minerals, called Milkorno. It also went by the names Milkoato and Milkwheato.

The mixture included powdered milk, salt, and cornmeal and was one of the most tasteless meals to come out of the Great Depression. One of the benefits of Milkorno was that it provided families with much-needed calcium, protein, and carbohydrates.

Navy Bean Soup Has A Lot Of Nutrients

Navy Bean Soup With Ham
Tom McCorkle/Lisa Cherkasky/Getty Images
Tom McCorkle/Lisa Cherkasky/Getty Images

Navy beans, also known as white beans, have been a staple food item in the United States Navy since the Great Depression era. The beans are relatively inexpensive and provide a lot of nutrients including iron, minerals, B vitamins, and protein.

Spare A Dime states that navy beans are also fat-free, high in fiber, low in cholesterol, and can improve digestion. A typical navy bean soup recipe includes onions, carrots, garlic, ham, and navy beans.

The History Behind Hoover Stew

Men eating in the canteen of the Bowery branch
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Those familiar with the time period of the Great Depression will remember a term called “Hoovervilles.” These were poor areas on the outskirts of town where people would gather and live together. A popular dish served in these shanty towns was Hoover stew.

According to The List, the stew was inspired by Herbert Hoover. It was made in large quantities at soup kitchens and included ingredients such as stewed tomatoes, canned corn, hot dogs, and macaroni. A woman who lived through the Great Depression told Just a Pinch Recipes that it was “a luxury or celebration meal, since it included meat.”

Plain Pizza Is Not Like Pizza Today

Fresh dough ready for baking
Anjelika Gretskaia/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Anjelika Gretskaia/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Pizza is one of the most common foods in the United States today, but the version from the Great Depression is unrecognizable. Resources were extremely limited, so people had to make do with what was available. This allowed them to come up with a dish called plain pizza.

It simply consisted of a piece of pizza dough that was rolled out and baked in the oven. Most people didn’t have any toppings, so it was usually covered with some butter.

Not Your Typical Peanut Butter Sandwich

peanut butter sandwiches cut in half
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Peanut butter sandwiches are a classic American meal that’s frequently associated with kids’ school lunches. While they are usually served with jelly, there were some peculiar peanut butter sandwich combinations during the Great Depression. The first was peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, which were cheap and easy to make.

The second option was peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. According to So Yummy, this sandwich was a staple for Americans. Most households had these ingredients and the sandwiches provided families with some much-needed nutrients. While it seems highly unlikely, there are still some people who eat these sandwich combinations today.

Everyone Was Eating Loaves

Genovese-style vegetable meatloaf
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Those who lived during the Great Depression needed meals that would last a long time. This is why “loaves” became so popular. Loaves could be made with anything, ranging from liver loaf to peanut loaf, meatloaf, lima bean loaf, and more. Some have noted that lima bean loaf had a similar taste to falafel.

In order to make these loaves last longer, people would pair them with bread, crackers, quick-cooking oats, tapioca breakfast cereals, and powdered sauce mixes. Loaves could feed large families, with most feeling satisfied that they got enough to eat.

Kraft Macaroni And Cheese Was Invented During The Great Depression

Heinz Kraft Co. Kraft brand Macaroni & Cheese box and bowl
Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kraft macaroni and cheese is still widely popular across America. This boxed pasta was invented in 1937 when a salesman for the Tenderoni macaroni company started selling noodles he made with packets of Kraft grated cheese attached. The concept was a hit, with people buying a box for 19 cents.

This was a steal because each box contained four servings, which could easily feed a family of four. Within its first year on the market, Kraft sold over eight million boxes. Not only was it inexpensive, but was one of the simplest meals to prepare.