Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression. Even though my mother was very well-off later in her life, I never saw her leave the house without some snack inside her purse. She said she just didn’t feel comfortable or “safe” without taking something to eat.
My father grew up on a farm and my mother on the outskirts of town, but both had difficulty finding plenty of food to eat. I often wonder if I would be as brave and resourceful as my parents were should I ever find myself in a similar situation.
Although they went without many other items, including new shoes, new clothes, and store-bought candy and toys, the thing my parents talk about most was the difficulty just in feeding themselves.
In this article, we are going to take a look at some of the best food sources that people used during the Great Depression.
Hunting, Fishing, Living off the Land
There was plenty of free food around — if you were willing to catch it, trap it, shoot it and skin it. My father and his brothers spent many, many hours out in the fields and woods surrounding their home shooting rabbits, wild pheasants, quail, grouse, wild turkeys, doves, ducks and deer. My father was the youngest of 13, so food didn’t last long on the table.
For those who had enough land or lived on farms, there also were the usual chickens, rabbits, pigs, sheep and cows. However, lots of thought went into deciding whether to kill livestock. For example, killing a cow meant no more calves, milk, cream or butter. However, if the cow was too old to have more calves, it would quickly find itself the main food at Sunday dinner.
My mother talks about going out to the open fields near her home and collecting whatever edible greens or wild food they could find, such as dandelions, burdock root, wild onions, potatoes, wild blueberries and raspberries, chickweed, wood sorrel or plantain. Wild honey was also desired, but it could be a dangerous endeavor.
If you lived near any body of water that contained fish, you could usually manage to catch enough on a Saturday for a fish fry. Fishing was rather time-consuming, though, when you consider that you generally spent the better part of the day for only one meal.
Stretching the Food
Making the most of whatever you had was one of the main ways people lived during these stressful times. For example, the fish that you caught on Saturday might make a fine fish fry, but don’t you dare throw out the heads or bones! This could be reused to make gravy or a base for soup. Add some fish heads, tails and everything but the entrails, a few vegetables, and you could brew up a stew or soup for another meal or possibly even two!
One-dish suppers, casseroles and other food-stretching recipes were popular during this time. Women traded secrets on how to make things like creamed chipped beef on toast, chili, soup, creamed chicken on biscuits, spaghetti without meat, bean soup or bean sandwiches, and macaroni and cheese.
Almost every meal was made at home from scratch. Forget about cake mixes, biscuit mixes, chili spice packets, or packaged mac and cheese. Not that these things weren’t available, but it was much cheaper to buy in bulk and cook at home. Most women became expert cooks and knew how to make just about anything by hand.
Let’s not forget “leftovers.” You never threw out anything, no matter how small the portion. My mother talks about “mish-mash” nights, when they took everything out of the icebox and pantry and ate whatever they found before it went bad.
Gardens and Backyard ‘Farms’
Unless you lived in an apartment building, you likely had a backyard garden. People would grow just about anything, and they often saved seeds to share with others, as well as to use again the next year. Popular garden vegetables were corn, green beans, tomatoes, squash, turnips, potatoes, cucumbers and pumpkins. Almost every woman knew how to can or pickle vegetables. Fruit would usually be eaten promptly, but there were still plenty of women who canned applesauce, as well as jams and jellies from fruit about to go bad.
My father would tell how he and his brothers would go to neighboring farms after the harvest and take home whatever had been left behind. Corn that had been nibbled on by birds or squirrels, cabbage with too many worms, or bird-pecked fruit left on the trees or the ground would be collected and taken home. His family would chop off the bad parts, wash off worms, and eat whatever was left.
They say no man is an island, and that certainly was true during these trying times. Many communities and church groups would hold potlucks, church dinners and Sunday night suppers, where everyone would bring whatever they had and everyone could share in the bounty. These were usually a once-a-week measure, but it certainly helped to stretch the family food budget. You might only have a loaf of bread to share, but if someone else brought chicken, everyone could have chicken sandwiches!
My parents told frightening stories about people who would literally stand for hours in the cold or snow in front of restaurants and beg for food as people came outside. People would dig through trash cans, hoping to find some scraps of food, or they would simply beg homeowners or farmers for work in exchange for food.
In larger cities, people often had to resort to begging on the streets or waiting for hours in line at a “soup kitchen” for a bowl of soup and a thick piece of bread.
Hopefully we won’t have to experience the hard times of another Great Depression, but isn’t it comforting to know that, if needed, you could manage on your own by keeping your skills and know-how up to snuff?
Do you have any stories of survival during the Great Depression? Share your stories and thoughts in the section below: