Food lessons from the Great Depression

CHILD OF THE ’30s: Pat Box grew up in a large family in Boyle Heights. No one went hungry, but it took ingenuity.
CHILD OF THE ’30s: Pat Box grew up in a large family in Boyle Heights. No one went hungry, but it took ingenuity.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

When she was a kid, for a treat Pat Box and her seven siblings got “water cocoa,” which is pretty much what it sounds like and nothing special today. But that was in the 1930s, when her father’s business was reselling bakers’ barrels to coopers, and the family would get first crack at them, scraping the wood for any traces of sugar or cocoa left behind.

With luck, they’d also have rye bread and fresh butter they’d buy on Brooklyn Avenue.

“It was wonderful,” said Box, 87, one afternoon while she gathered with friends at the Claude Pepper Senior Center on La Cienega Boulevard, just north of the 10 Freeway.

At a time when Americans face frightening and disorienting economic uncertainty, the Great Depression provides valuable lessons. For many people, putting a meal on the table without turning to processed or takeout foods is no longer something just for a weekend dinner party but a skill they must learn. People who remember what it was like to eat during the Depression talk about thrift, growing their own, sharing with neighbors and learning to cope with what they had.


Box grew up in Boyle Heights in a time of desperate need, but no one went hungry at her family’s house, though it took work and ingenuity.

Her mother baked bread and made kreplach. Her father turned flour sacks into towels to sell, and her aunt sold chickens. “You’d stick your hand in, feel for fat around the stomach” and make your choice. Her mother made pillows with the feathers.

It was a time when leftovers were planned. A roast chicken -- for Jewish Shabbat or Sunday dinner -- lasted for days, as chicken with rice, chicken and dumplings, pot pie, stew or soup or salad. Women used the wrappers on margarine to butter baking pans. People ate what they could grow or kill or find.

Be honest, now: Can anybody in your house skin a rabbit?

Know what to do with milkweed pods? (Boil them and top with grated cheese.) Get your kids to eat sour grass soup? Those recipes, from “Dining During the Depression,” a collection of recipes edited by Karen Thibodeau, are unlikely to find their way into kitchens today, despite the state of the economy.

But in the 1930s, making do was a kitchen art, honed by necessity.

“In the times when the economy is really bad, it becomes an even more important question of how you’re going to put food on the table for your family,” says Kelly Alexander, co-author of “Hometown Appetites,” a biography of the pioneering newspaper food columnist Clementine Paddleford.

“If you want to save money, you’re going to have to learn to cook,” Alexander says.

She says she recently saw a pot pie recipe that called for precooked pieces of chicken, a premade crust and vegetables from a salad bar -- essentially directions for assembling, not cooking. So by appealing to people who are too busy to cook or unwilling to learn, a modern version of a dish invented to make leftovers appealing becomes a collection of expensive ingredients.


Many Americans never learned to cook as they grew up, and they rely on takeout or packaged food, but dinner was a very different experience during the Depression.

Mix ‘n’ match soup

“We ate a lot of mashed potatoes, and I’m still hung up on mashed potatoes,” says Rosalyn Weinstein, 79, pointing to an uneaten scoop on her plate. Though she does not cook much these days, she says she still makes “mix ‘n’ match” soup from whatever is on hand.

“Cooking is becoming a lost art,” she says. “I’ve never been a takeout person. And I’ve never been a fast food person.

Joe Bagley, 81, who moved to Los Angeles during World War II, was born in Texas and raised for a time on a farm. “We were never wanting for food, but you had to raise your own,” he says, adding that his family saw plenty of hungry people wandering in search of work. They’d stop at the farm, and Bagley recalls that he’d be sent inside to get whatever was there to feed them.

Though the country is not in a depression today, signs of tough times are all around.

The market is in shreds, food is pricier. A spokesman for Ralphs and Food 4 Less says more people are turning to house brands, and Albertsons has seen more sales of “stretcher” products such as Hamburger Helper, a spokeswoman says.


Food pantries around Los Angeles are worried about having enough to hand out, and restaurant tables are empty. Even Gourmet magazine offered in a recent e-mail newsletter some “recession special” recipes, including a potato gratin adapted from an Edna Lewis recipe.

A few generations ago cooking was a family affair, with children sent to pick food from the garden or shell peas. With SAT prep classes or soccer or ballet, many families are lucky to get their kids to the dinner table at all.

Gretchen Sterling, who has managed the Villa Park farmers market in Pasadena for 28 years, recalls that her mother, the daughter of a Minnesota butcher, made soap from lye and bacon fat, and canned her own meat. Getting what you needed rarely meant going shopping; do-it-yourself was not a hobby centered on a Home Depot. “Now kids don’t even know that carrots grow underground,” she says.

Cooking everything that came their way was a way of life for Hattie Adkins’ family. She was just a girl in the ‘30s, when her family lived on a farm in Raeford, N.C., but her memories are strong. Her family and those around them ate what was ripe and ready, never thinking of themselves as “locavores,” just taking advantage of what was cheapest and best-tasting.

Winter stores

“When it came time to harvest the corn, we had all the corn we could eat,” Adkins, 76, recalled one recent afternoon, sitting in her Long Beach apartment building.


Potatoes, beans, cabbage, peaches -- all plentiful and put up for the winter. After they ate watermelons, they pickled the rinds. When a hog was killed, she says, the meat was put into a wooden box and covered with salt, eventually to become ham.

Adkins says she also could catch a rabbit in the woods. “Apples today don’t have a good smell. Back then if you set a trap and rub the peels on the trap, the rabbit would come on in.

“Anybody in the neighborhood who didn’t have, always had when they came to our house,” she says. “We had enough food to feed a lot of people.”

These days, she eats simply, usually using inexpensive ingredients. She’ll saute an onion, add a little flour to brown it, pour in canned potatoes and green beans -- juice and all -- sprinkle on some rice and let it simmer.

City food, not farm food. But one thing hasn’t changed: She often feeds neighbors.

MacVean is a Times staff writer.