When the world fell on hard times during the infamous Great Depression of the 1930s, the concept of food changed. With simple ingredients like sugar and butter no longer so accessible, substitutions had to be made.
Some of these were more successful than others. Generally, when talking about Depression Era food, it’s to feel grateful about what we eat today: “Can you imagine eating a ketchup sandwich?”
But some recipes stayed smart and delicious, even after the money began to flow. Here are some of the tastiest recipes to come out of the era.
10 Potato Soup
This is one meal I can personally guarantee still holds up today.
Potato soup is simple but delicious. Take some potato, onion, and a little bit of butter and milk, and you’ve got yourself one helluva dinner! Potatoes are one of the cheapest vegetables money can buy, and while they can be bland on their own, salty butter and creamy milk add plenty of flavor and texture.
If you’ve got a bigger budget, fresh scallions or green onions and sour cream elevate the dish to a totally new level. It’s no wonder this straightforward soup has stayed popular for over a century.
9 Bread and Butter Pickles
Did you know that these popular pickles were created during the Great Depression?
At the end of the summer, leftover cucumber crops were pickled to last well into the winter. Wintertime made vegetables and fruits even scarcer than they already were to impoverished people, so pickles were a welcome addition to plain sandwiches with bread and butter.
Nowadays, pickles are generally seen as a condiment or a side dish, not the whole meal. But if you’ve ever gone to a carnival and munched on a pickle-on-a-stick or picked up a hot pickle from the gas station, you know how delectable these vinegary veggies can be.
8 Egg Drop Soup
Egg drop soup is traditionally known as a Chinese dish. But during the hard times of the Great Depression, Americans took this simple side dish and made it their own.
All you need is water or broth and eggs, really. Of course, when they could, most people added some sort of meat or veggie or served it over toast. But if those weren’t available, just the warm liquid could keep you full for a bit during the colder months.
Truthfully, the U.S. version of egg drop soup doesn’t sound as appetizing as the customary one from China, which usually comes with tofu and scallions and can be made with different meat or vegetable broths.
7 Spaghetti with Carrots and White Sauce
This meal is pretty self-explanatory. Overcook your noodles, mush them in with some boiled carrots, and add a simple sauce (usually made of milk, flour, salt, and butter) and bake it like a casserole.
Alright, so it isn’t too flashy. But President FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt both promoted it. If it’s good enough for the president, it’s good enough for me! The Roosevelts made a point to try and eat the food that the regular citizens of America would be eating instead of the rich, delicious buffets they used to. During this era, the White House became notorious for serving bad food.
But it was for a good cause. Eleanor Roosevelt was determined to make a statement, and that she did. Politicians visiting the president and his wife may have complained about the food, but they were getting a taste of what the American people were eating every single day and learning more about the state of the country.
Plus, with a few modern-day tweaks (add a little crushed red pepper or sriracha for some spice), spaghetti with carrots and white sauce is an easy and quick dinner.
6 Mock Apple Pie
Everything in this recipe is for that of an apple pie. Except for the apples, which are replaced by crackers.
It may sound crazy, but amazingly, it tastes so much like real apple pie that people still make it just to mess with their friends and family when they reveal there are no apples in it at all!
What makes it taste so similar? Apparently, it’s a mix of the cream of tartar and lemon zest that gives the pie a fruity and acidic taste similar to that of apples. Then the cinnamon and sugar make you think of real apple pie, and your brain does the rest. If it looks like apple pie and smells like apple pie, it must taste like it, too!
How do you like them app—I mean, crackers?
5 Prune Pudding
Today, you can waltz into any Walmart and buy some pudding mix for about 20 cents. But during the Great Depression, even a fairly simple treat like pudding was hard to come by. To combat this, many Americans turned to prunes. Why prunes? They were healthy and able to give you sugars and nutrients that aren’t found in other, more popular fruits. They might not be the prettiest or the tastiest, but they were practical.
Even beyond their taste and health benefits, prune trees could grow easily in bad soil and with less water, unlike many other fruit trees, which require near-perfect conditions. Thus, prunes abounded in popularity, popping up in recipes like this one. It was also great for penny-pinchers in the 1930s because it was quite flexible. Unlike many pastries and desserts, you could customize prune pudding based on what you had more or less of. Add some sugar, change the spices, or throw in whatever you had.
Prunes might not be the most popular flavor of pudding, but if you’re looking for a less sickly sweet dessert, this one is cheap and easy.
4 Mystery Spice Cake
A common component of Great Depression recipes is “surprise” ingredients. Things that taste great, but someone may be weary to try if you told them how it’s made. For example, would you rather eat “mystery spice cake” or “tomato cake”?
No matter which one you choose, it’s the same. Mystery spice cake’s secret ingredient is tomatoes, which, thanks to Campbell’s canned soup, was cheap and available to even the poorest Americans. Other fats and typical cake ingredients, such as eggs and butter, were scarce or expensive, so the soup or canned tomatoes added moisture to the cake.
The cake stayed popular even beyond the Depression due to its interesting taste. Celebrated poet of the 1960s, Sylvia Plath baked often, and tomato soup cake was one of her specialties. As Plath’s popularity has grown throughout the past few years, many have searched her journals and diaries for some of the interesting things she liked to bake in that infamous oven.
3 Hoover Stew
No, not like the vacuum: Like the president.
In the 1930s, people were angry… at the government, at the employers, and at anyone with power who wasn’t doing enough to help them. As more and more Americans became homeless, their hatred grew. With few ways to express this, they took to naming bad things after President Herbert Hoover, the man they blamed for it all.
It started with “Hoovervilles,” the impromptu shantytowns that housed thousands of people throughout the Depression. Then came Hoover stew. With just four ingredients, it’s hard to mess up this mix of macaroni, hot dogs, tomatoes, and corn. Fresh, canned, it doesn’t matter. Depression-era Americans made do with what they had. So if you prefer another kind of pasta, meat, or veggie, throw it on in.
With such a customizable recipe, it’s easy to make this into something you’ll love.
2 Water Pie
One of the most famous recipes to come out of the 1930s has made a comeback nearly a century later thanks to the social media outlet TikTok. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, TIkTokers shared videos of themselves cooking and trying the weird recipe, which prompted even more young people to try it.
The consensus was almost always positive, with teens smacking their lips in surprise at how custard-like and sugary the pie tasted. The starch in the flour allows the water to set and become somewhat solid, making the pie less liquid than you might expect.
And the fun doesn’t have to stop with water: That was just the one thing Americans always had access to. Today, you can substitute it with any drink, like Sprite or Coke!
1 Wacky Cake
Don’t have any eggs, butter, or milk? Don’t fret! You’re still able to make a cake, as long as it’s this one from over one hundred years ago.
“Wacky cake,” also called “Depression cake” or “Eggless, butterless, milkless cake,” is so called because of the absence of those aforementioned ingredients, which almost always make up the cake batter of any pastry. Despite this oddity, it’s extremely easy to make. Unless traditional cakes, bakers just need to mix the ingredients together. No folding or mixing wet and dry: You can just throw everything in a big pan and stick it in the oven.
Though the origin of the wacky cake can only be traced back to 1940, it was likely created before then, during the Depression, when a family might be short on any of the regular active ingredients in desserts. The wacky cake was such an efficient substitute for traditional cakes that it’s still popular today, especially due to the fact that it can be cooked in the microwave, making it perfect for anyone looking for a quick chocolate fix.