Boomer Blog: Square meals in hard times

We Baby Boomers did not experience the Great Depression or the war years first-hand, but we certainly grew up being influenced by those extraordinary eras. My father never threw anything away and constantly patched together beyond-broken items with twine string and baling wire. Nary a 4-H sewing season passed without his suggestion we make our outfits from burlap bags or feed sacks.

And anytime we kids turned up our noses at “perfectly-good” food, we definitely heard how picky and too well-fed we were. He was the expert, after all. His parents raised a dozen children during those economically-dark days, when keeping food on the table required effort we could never begin to fathom.

Aside from the milk toast Mother occasionally made for breakfast and the way my father chewed every remaining fried chicken bone clean at Sunday lunch, I never truly realized how much of what we ate at home were “leftovers” from those years of “getting by” and “making do.”

I recently ran across an article, “8 Foods That Might Not Be So Popular Today Were It Not for the Great Depression,” posted on the website. I was not surprised to see listed a few foods from the 30’s that we also ate in the 50’s: baked apples, hot dogs mixed into baked beans, chicken and noodles or dumplings.

I did not, however, expect to see grapefruit and broccoli on the list. The mouth-puckering citrus fruit became part of the American diet through its availability on public assistance during the Great Depression. And Japanese farmers in California looking to survive those lean times cultivated broccoli, previously introduced by Italian immigrants.

Vestiges of Depression-era foods often appeared on our table when we were kids, foods we occasionally and nostalgically savor even today. In the 1930’s, and to a lesser extent during our budget-conscious childhood days, scrimping and saving were a way of life. We heard how my dad’s family made use of every part of any animal they slaughtered, and we knew his mother and sisters spent long hours canning vegetables and fruits from their large garden.

My grandmother likely created all manner of casseroles, clever mixtures of small amounts of meat extended by veggies, including potatoes, as well as beans or rice. My own mother fixed Texas Hash with hamburger, rice, tomatoes, and onions and later translated the casserole custom into any number of crockpot combinations. Strange as it may seem, I still prefer a good casserole over a steak or a pork chop.

With meat less than plentiful during the Great Depression, a new canned form appeared on grocery shelves in 1937: SPAM, a mixture of pork and ham meat. My dad undoubtedly ate SPAM during his Army years, and Mother sometimes served it to us in place of bacon and hot dogs.

Like her 1930’s contemporaries, my grandmother also used gravies to stretch little bits of meat into entire meals. Chipped beef gravy over toast was regular Depression fare, although I have heard other, less flattering names for the concoction. Mother fixed dried beef gravy, as she called the dish, for us to eat with our breakfast toast, but I preferred the supper version to which she added cooking water from the real mashed potatoes over which she spooned the meat-flecked sauce.

Sandwiches with whatever-was-available fillings were frequent menu items way back when: mayonnaise sandwiches, tomato sandwiches, butter and sugar sandwiches – none of which we ever ate at home.

I also read about bacon grease sandwiches, which likewise never showed up in our lunch boxes. But whenever Mother fixed bacon for breakfast, she saved the rendered fat to use for frying meat later in the day – or the week. I always found the eggs she scrambled in bacon grease with a fork much tastier than the fluffy ones she stirred with a wooden spoon as she added water.

Fried egg sandwiches, which I still enjoy, were popular in the 30’s as were fried bologna sandwiches. My father was the master of fried bologna: he sliced slabs from a big “hunk,” cut slits to prevent their edges from curling, fried them, and topped them with slices of Velveeta or Chef’s Delight “cheese.”

My parents are not here to confirm eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese during their childhoods; but at 19 cents per blue box, the entrée’s early popularity increased during the war years when more women began working outside the home. It was this very form of mac & cheese that appeared on our table at least twice a month for the entirety of my childhood.

Mother always paired the Kraft dish with salmon patties, stretched further by her Depression-like addition of cracker crumbs, just the way she supplemented ground beef with torn-up bread before frying hamburgers in her cast iron skillet.

And my father occasionally augmented a modest breakfast by pouring coffee over a bunch of broken-up saltine crackers, undoubtedly a meal from the height – or depths – of the Great Depression. Clearly, you can take the boy out of tough times, but you can’t… Well, you understand.

It has been my absolute pleasure to dine on scrumptious foods in fine restaurants here and abroad. But, when all is said and done, I prefer to contemplate some eighty years of family food history with a bowl of ham and beans just like my grandmother – and then my mother – used to make.

By Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.