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Great Depression Soup: The Recipe You Better Save For Hard Times

Great Depression Soup: The Recipe You Gotta Save For Hard Times

My parents were just toddlers when the Great Depression burst into their lives. It forever altered their view of the world, and not always in a good way.

My mother, in particular, would tell me horror stories about some of the things that went on during those years. Until the day she died, she always carried some sort of food in her purse, usually peanuts or crackers. She never forgot what it was to be truly hungry.

Perhaps the worst story she told me was that my paternal grandmother, who was in her early 20s at the time, woke up one January morning in a barn to find that her husband had just left her and their toddler in the night. She had no food, no money, no family, no place to live, and a baby to feed. She walked along the highway and offered her baby to anyone who would take her. She assumed that someone with enough money for a car had money to feed a baby.

These type of stories can give you nightmares and make you wonder how people survived! My mother told me many other amazing stories, about how they “just did without” or “made do” with what they had, but some of her stories were practical enough that we could still benefit from them if we should ever find ourselves in the same desperate circumstances.

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Great Depression Soup: The Recipe You Gotta Save For Hard TimesOne of those was how women shared food-stretching recipes, such as macaroni and cheese or fish gravy. One recipe my mother remembered clearly was called “depression soup,” although she said her father called it “garbage soup,” a name that would make my grandmother angry.

My grandmother had a large pot with a lid that she kept in the ice box or outside in the snow. Cans (or jars) of fruit or vegetables were filled with a bit of water, and then scraped out and put in the pot. Everything, and I mean everything, went in that pot: bread crumbs, a tablespoon of rice, a shriveled-up carrot, a half-rotten potato (just cut off the bad part), fish heads and tails, bits of garlic, chicken skin, necks, livers, hearts, the hard skin of onions, broccoli ends, carrot and radish greens — you name it; unless it was rotten, it went into that pot.

Once it was about half full, my grandmother added water, perhaps a tablespoon or two of bacon grease, and cooked it for two hours or so. And that would be dinner. If you were fortunate, she baked bread.

My mother remembers that some soups were better than others. Once they began raising rabbits, the bones were used as a base. Soup made with bones and vegetables had to be tastier than soup made with carrot tops, radish tops and some bacon fat.

The point here is that while we would never dream of eating Depression Soup for lunch, remembering how people survived on scraps, literally, might come in handy for tomorrow’s world. We aren’t promised a land of fruit and honey in the future, so knowing how our ancestors survived during hard times might one day ensure our own survival.

Would you eat Great Depression Soup? Is there a better way to make it? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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  1. I’ve been married just shy of 50 years and have only been in financial trouble twice. However, I’ve been making what I called “garbage soup” for almost the entire time of my marriage. The only thing I would do differently than what is suggested is to 1. Keep fish stuff for fish soup but mix poultry, beef and pork. 2. I would bake the veggies to brown them, which increases the flavor.

    I always save the crumbs from crackers, bread, cereal in a jar to use for thickening soup, gravy, whatever. The ‘nut dust’ from bags of shelled nuts I save separately to use in muffins, bread, salad dressing. And I always rinse/scrape clean jars and cans and put into a container – keeping sweet, like jams and jellies, separately to use for anything sweet – even as a spread for biscuits or pancakes.

  2. Most people under the age of 50 don’t know what its like to do without and make do with what one has
    When I was growing up that was the way it was and we never complained or whined about things the way the kids of today do
    I fell sorry for them

  3. I love the children’s book Stone Soup where everyone does not want to share until they are fascinated by the idea that someone is going to make soup out of a stone. How the soup is really made is by everyone sharing what they do have to combine them for a soup. So, that could be another option.

  4. My grandma taught me to make what she called ‘Sweep the ice box soup” all of the leftovers were put into the pot and simmered until the soup was just right probably about two to three hours. I always loved it and still to this day make it for my family…

  5. I heard the band Oasis came out with their own brand of soup…”You get a roll with it…”

  6. In the book, The Millionaires Next Door, the authors asked millionaires who achieved wealth through frugality just what they did when financially hard times hit. They were surprised by a common answer, “We eat more soup.”

  7. With all due respect to “aj”, but do you honestly feel sorry that today’s children don’t live on the edge of starvation, and therefore they are ungrateful? I don’t know any children like the ones to which you refer.

    The Depression was a terrible time in our country’s history. The young woman trying to give her baby away because she couldn’t feed it is horrible. I think that mother would have been grateful to be able to raise her child in today’s world of prosperity.

    And I love putting soups together out of leftovers and wilted vegetables. Sometimes I have two or three different kinds from one “”kitchen sweep”, which I then store in the freezer in quart containers. It’s creative and fun for me. Because I am fortunate to be able to consider it so.

  8. When I was young, every year, we planted zucchini. I learned that three zucchini plants will feed one person every day from mid-July through September. Sometimes, my mother would empty out the fridge and add whatever was in there to the zucchini. She called it “skilletino.”

    Now my husband and I eat lots of soup. Usually, we start with a base of beans or lentils. Then whatever we have on hand gets added. It’s always different, but it’s nutritious. Often we add barley, veggies, and sometimes rolled oats to thicken it.

  9. Barbara MacDonald

    I was raised on Hostess cupcakes, ice cream and macaroni and cheese. I didn’t eat fruits & vegetables until my 65th year when I was trying to lose weight. I gag at the thought of eating some of the things that you described. I have tried so desperately to like and eat every kind of food. Soup is the thing that I have the hardest time with. It’s basically flavored water, flavored with things I do not like. Some of it really smells bad, like salmon soup. I seriously am thankful for my blessings of food. But I hope I’m never in a situation where I have to eat garbage soup. You inspire me and make me want to keep trying. Step aside, peanut butter sandwiches and hamburgers! I’m on a gastronomic adventure.

  10. My Mother was a WAC during World War II she was stationed in France. One night she was on KP duty and took a bucket full of vegetable cuttings out back of the tent to a barrel they were dumping them in. She said while she was out there some little girls from the nearby town came up with buckets and scooped bucket fulls out of the barrel My Mother asked what they were going to do with the vegetable cuttings and they said they were going to take them home and their Mothers were going to cook that up for supper. Reminds me of garbage soup.

  11. We called it refrigerator soup. All the leftovers, stored in the fridge, placed into a pot and soup is the result. Many times we had to freeze it and use after a couple weeks due to lack of leftovers, large bunch of kids don’t leave a lot of food behind.

  12. My father used to make “Junk Soup.” I was always excited when he was cooking it, and thought the name was funny. The result was generally quite delicious. Only time I didn’t enjoy eating Junk Soup was when corn kernels made their way into the pot…

  13. Come on. What’s the rest of the story – what happened to grandma and her baby. Would really like to know. Also, my two kids attended a boarding school and every Friday they had “walk – in soup”. What ever was in the big walk in cooler went into the pot. They said it was sometimes better than others. They still talk about it being good training in not wasting “good” food.

  14. Just found this story today while reading another “Off the Grid” story and even though it is more than a year old I still wanted to add to the comments. Loved reading the comments seeing that many people are making this soup even today. It is so important not only to be reminded of these times and how people survived but to pass along these stories to each generation as none of us know what the future holds.
    Though I didn’t grow up during the depression both my parents did and told us stories of how their families survived. I hope you don’t mind if I share 3 food related depression stories with you.

    My dad came from a large family with six other siblings. Beans, biscuits and water gravy were the mainstay. His mom could take very little and make it go a long way. When a piece of meat was available my grandmother could take the smallest piece and beat it out paper thin, coat it with flour and fry it up so everyone could have some. It was a treat. That habit never left her and she cooked that way always. I remember one time we made a surprise visit. She was delighted to see us and though we offered to treat her she, as always, wanted to cook for us. She had a small piece of meat (she was widowed and alone by this time) so it was a very small piece probably meant for her alone. While my grandmother was getting ready to cook my mom found us kids and secretly told all of us to just take a small piece of meat (or none) as it was small and she didn’t want my grandmother’s feelings to be hurt. My mom tells the story of then watching my grandmother take a hammer to that little piece of meat and proceeded to pound and turn that meat until it was huge. She cut the meat in pieces then salted, floured, and fried that piece of meat up and filled a plate. We remember looking at my mom with questioning eyes wondering where the extra meat came from. With a pot of pinto beans, homemade biscuits or cornbread, plus the meat, we were full My mom laughingly when reminiscing and telling us this story would end it with a twinkle in her eye and tell us there was even leftover meat on the plate!

    The second story came from my aunt. She was my father’s much older sister who married during the depression and was determined to make the best of it all though they had so little. She and her new husband invited friends over for dinner even though all they had in the cupboard was some flour, salt, and a bit of saved fat. She made biscuits and a water gravy with those 4 items. They set the table, talked, ate, and laughed for hours. They shared all they had and decades later she remembers it was the best dinner ever. In spite of hard circumstances, there was gratitude that filled that evening. Gratitude of not only friendship and family, but of having something to share with their friends and the joy of being able to share it.

    The last story was from my mom who not only grew up eating many meals of the above-named-soups during the depression. Part of her teaching us children to cook was to show them how to make this soup using leftovers and little bits of this and that. Though I don’t remember this soup having a name, we had it often. Hardly anything ever went to waste and today am so thankful for that teaching as I am passing it on to my children. We also grew up eating what my mom called depression spaghetti. Meat spaghetti was the thing to have if you could afford any amount of meat but she and her mom couldn’t afford meat but did make a meatless tomato sauce which they put over noodles. For a treat if they had it they would put a small pat of butter on top of each of their spaghetti portions and tell each other “this is our meat.” It was probably because of this story, but we grew up loving depression spaghetti and frequently would make my mom tell us the story when we ate it. Now years later, my own hubby and children eat depression spaghetti and when I occasionally add meat or make a fancy out-of-a-cookbook spaghetti recipe, they will eat it but never ask for it again, saying they prefer depression spaghetti. : )

  15. my mother has told me about the year that all they had to eat was corn meal everyday every meal.

  16. In the old days, through a friend of mine who grew up on a farm, they had a ‘rolling soup pot’. It was the fast food in their time. You start a pot of soup on the hob/stove/cooker and when it is half way down from being eaten, you add more vegetables and/or meat and add more water, re-boil and then simmer. He said you could keep it on a low simmer or let it cool down (with lid on) and re-boil, and then simmer.

    It is where the old rhyme comes from “Pease porridge hot; pease porridge cold; pease porridge in the pot nine days old.” Pease porridge is mushy peas.

    • When I was married to my second husband, we became homeless, and lived in his grandfather’s barn which was outfitted with a gas stove, and a wood stove. I kept a pot of soup going on the back burner of the stove, and put any and all leftover vegetables and meat in the pot, and we ate from that pot for six months, boiling and then simmering to keep it going. It’s been over 20 years now, and to this day, my son still loves soups and stews with very thick gravy.

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