Special Report

Hard Times and Simple Fare: What People Ate During the Great Depression

Heritage Images / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Two of the most disruptive events in American history extended through the 1930s. The Dust Bowl, resulting from drought and blinding dust storms across the land-parched Plains states, and the Great Depression — an economic calamity that threw people out of work and bankrupted families. Both events had catastrophic effects on the supply chain and thus terrible impacts on people’s access to food. Desperation gave way to ingenuity as American households persevered with innovative ideas to feed their families during that time of want. (Here are 32 haunting photos that capture the struggles of the Great Depression.)

24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of foods that were eaten during the Depression, using sources such as the Daily Meal, Eat This, Not That, Hunger to Hope, The Travel, and Historynet

Items we take for granted in our pantries today such as bread, milk, flour, and eggs, weren’t always available to everyone during the Depression.

For breakfast you might get pancakes made from the Bisquick biscuit mix, or cornbread, or creamed chipped beef on toast. Most meat was very expensive, and during this time, Americans ate more vegetables and soups: Cabbage, potato, onion, and split peas, among many others. 

There were also stews such as Mulligan stew (carrots, potatoes, cabbage or lettuce, and maybe a little meat) and Hoover stew, named after beleaguered President Herbert Hoover and consisting of cooked macaroni, hot dogs, stewed tomatoes, and canned corn. You could also find macaroni and cheese, chili, and baked beans on top of Depression-era stoves .

Dessert was something of a luxury, but you could still get rice or prune pudding (prunes were much cheaper than other fruits), or partake of Depression cake, made without milk, sugar, butter, or eggs because those items were too expensive.

The era had some curious items on the menu, such as bacon roll-ups (bacon rolled around stale bread cubes); meatless loaf (made with peanuts, cottage cheese, and oatmeal or rice), spaghetti and carrot casserole (spaghetti with boiled carrots and a white sauce baked in the oven), and peanut butter-stuffed onions. (None of these, it’s safe to say, are among the 50 signature dishes that define American cuisine.)

Bacon roll-ups
> Description: Stale bread cubes bound with egg and wrapped with bacon


Baked apples
> Description: Cored apples filled with cinnamon-sugar mixture, then baked


Baked beans
> Description: Navy beans slow-cooked with molasses and sometimes bits of pork (the basis for many common dishes at the time)

> Description: A mix of baking ingredients initially meant for biscuits, but later repurposed for pancakes, dumplings, etc.


Cabbage soup
> Description: Soup of cabbage, potatoes, onion, and bacon

> Description: Cheap chili with crackers (which were free) at chili joints around the nation


Chocolate cream pie
> Description: A simple dessert made with cocoa powder


> Description: Made only with cornmeal, salt, and hot water

Creamed chipped beef on toast
> Description: Toast covered with chopped dried beef in white sauce


Dandelion salad
> Description: Dandelion leaves, often picked wild, soaked in clean water and rinsed, then dressed


Depression cake
> Description: Fruit, nuts, spices, and flour (no milk, sugar, butter, or eggs because they were too expensive or hard to obtain)


Deviled eggs in tomato sauce
> Description: Stuffed eggs covered with tomato sauce


Hoover Stew
> Description: Stew with cooked macaroni, hot dogs, stewed tomatoes, and canned corn

Kraft Macaroni and cheese
> Description: At just 19 cents a box, this iconic Kraft product was an instant hit when it was introduced in 1937


Meatless loaf
> Description: Loaf made with peanuts, cottage cheese, and oatmeal or rice


> Description: A product made from powdered skim milk, cornmeal, and salt, often eaten as hot breakfast cereal


Mulligan stew
> Description: Similar to Irish stew, made with carrots, potatoes, cabbage or lettuce, and meat if it was available


Onion soup
> Description: Onions, potatoes, and green beans simmered in milk

Peanut Butter Bread
> Description: Made with peanut butter instead of butter or eggs, which were too expensive


Peanut butter-stuffed onions
> Description: Onions stuffed with peanut butter and bread crumbs and baked


Potato candy
> Description: No-bake treat also known as Depression candy, made of mashed potatoes, peanut butter, and powdered sugar


Potato pancakes
> Description: Made of grated potatoes only; cheese, garlic, and onion were optional


Potato soup
> Description: Made with potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, a bit of butter and milk

Prune pudding
> Description: Chopped prunes (cheaper than other fruits) simmered with cornstarch, sugar, and cinnamon


Rice pudding
> Description: Dessert made with white rice, milk, egg yolks, and sugar


Spaghetti with bacon
> Description: A one-pot meal in which bacon was the substitute for meatballs


Spaghetti and carrot casserole
> Description: Spaghetti with boiled carrots and a white sauce baked in the oven


> Description: Canned processed pork product

Split pea pancakes
> Description: Soaked and chopped split peas with a bit of flour and egg, ometimes served with tomatoes or sauce of some kind


Split pea soup
> Description: Split peas boiled with onion, maybe some ham, and spices

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