20 Weird Foods People Ate During The Great Depression To Stay Alive

Flappers. Champers. Unfeasibly beautiful home decor. The 1920s was the decade where consumerism met art in an explosion of chrome and diamonds. But did you know it also heralded the start of one of the worst economic recessions the world has ever seen? The Great Depression began in America in 1929 and led to mass unemployment, food scarcity and a decade-long struggle to survive. All of which meant that people had to get super-creative with the meals they scraped together. Here are 20 of the strangest concoctions anyone has ever called dinner.

20. Prune Pudding

A common sweet during the Depression years, prune pudding was a staple of many dinner tables in the United States. The odd dessert – which was also known as prune whip – consists merely of the humble dried plum, corn-starch and sugar. The sweetened powder was added to boiling fruit, before the whole thing was cooled and served.

Prune pudding took off in the 1930s thanks to the fruit’s low price. And as they were dried, the plums could be stored for longer than fresh produce. Even the Depression-era U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, tucked into this odd dessert. His wife, and America’s First Lady, Eleanor ensured it was served up at the White House, perhaps in a bid to show solidarity with the struggling nation. Whether or not the Presidential guests enjoyed it, though, is another matter entirely.

19. Navy Bean Soup

Many of us love munching on onions, ham, carrots and garlic. Whether as individual ingredients, or paired with the right accompaniments, they can be downright delicious. But eating them after they’ve all been cooked together in a broth with beans? They don’t sound quite so tasty now, right? But that’s exactly what the oddly named Navy Bean Soup consisted of.

Back in the 1930s, Navy Bean Soup was a good way for hard-up folks to get a good dose of protein, fiber and vitamins. All of those diet essentials were provided in one hearty dish that, just as importantly, was relatively cheap to make. And as you might have guessed from its name, in the first half of the 20th century, it was mainly served to members of the U.S. Navy.


18. Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions

Peanut butter? Almost everyone loves the nutty spread. Onions? A little more divisive, perhaps, but a very popular vegetable nonetheless. Peanut butter-stuffed baked onions, though? Oh dear, pass the sick bag. But while the very thought of hot, nut-filled garden vegetables might be enough to make you throw-up, we can assure you that it was a very real meal during the 1930s.

So, who was responsible for the invention for the gastronomic monstrosity that was Peanut Butter Baked Onions? Bizarrely, it appears to have been the U.S. government, through its Bureau of Home Economics. This subset of the Department of Agriculture developed lots of recipes during the Depression, including this unholy union, and printed them in America’s newspapers and magazines. At the time, of course, there was a push for households to make the most of what ingredients they could muster. But this was surely a shove too far.


17. Dandelion Salad

Dandelions are undoubtedly pretty plants. Granted, they can irritate gardeners who want to keep their lawns pristine and weedless, but their bright yellow flowers always catch the eye. Have you ever considered eating them, though? Well, Dandelion salad is a real thing, and, if you prefer, the greens of the plant can be eaten raw or steamed. Just season to taste and add some vinegar for a delicious treat.

The sweet and crunchy plant was utilized by resourceful citizens in the United States during the Great Depression. Italian-American women from New York and elsewhere reportedly spent many a day picking out the flower’s greens for their families to eat. To this day, dandelion salad remains a tasty, nutritious and often totally free meal.


16. Ritz Cracker ‘Apple’ Pie

An apple pie without apples is impossible, right? Well, no actually. Just get your hands on some sugar, butter, cinnamon and lemon juice and add a surprising ingredient: Ritz crackers. Yes, the texture of these popular snacks allied with the aforementioned ingredients will create the illusion that you’ve just tucked into a hearty slice of mom’s finest apple pie.

Due to low income levels among the lower classes during the Depression years, housewives and keen cooks had to get creative with what ingredients they could afford. The Ritz cracker ‘apple’ pie is a prime example of this ingenuity. This cunning substitution gave destitute families the taste of an American classic which had become something of a luxury.


15. Baloney casserole

Baloney casserole might not sound that appetizing to modern palettes, but it’s a surprisingly tasty meal. The hearty dish includes a combination of bacon, canned pork, beans and chili, peppers, onions, cheese and the much-maligned baloney. Obviously, it could and would often be made without some of the ingredients listed, but usually it packed plenty of punch.

As we mentioned earlier, many popular foods were too pricey or difficult to come by during the trying period that was the 1930s. Meat was one of them; particularly where quality cuts of beef, chicken, pork and the like were concerned. So it’s not surprising that families looked for cheaper, more readily available, sources of protein. And baloney ticked all the boxes.


14. Hoover Stew

Like the baloney casserole, the ingredients of the so-called Hoover stew could vary slightly, subject to availability. But generally it was a mix of the following: stewed tomatoes, chopped hot dogs, cooked macaroni and canned corn. These seemingly unrelated foodstuffs were thrown together to simmer in a pot before being served.

As you’ve probably guessed, this stew took its moniker from the hapless U.S. President Herbert Hoover. This Republican politician was famously in office when the Wall Street stock market crashed and plunged the world into a massive recession. The low cost of the meal made it ideal for struggling families, but it also fit the bill for many a soup kitchen. Which meant that the entire nation partook of the nutritious and cheap stomach-filler.


13. Spaghetti with Boiled Carrots and White Sauce

This simple dish became a common meal during the Depression years. The pasta was first cooked to death in hot water for an insane 25 minutes, before being served up with boiled carrots and a white sauce made out of milk, salt, flour and butter. And, from what we can tell, it tasted as vile as it sounds. We know times were tough, but what were people thinking?

Well, for a start, Eleanor Roosevelt was predominantly thinking about budget-friendly, nutritious home economics. And the none-too-appetizing but surprisingly healthy pasta dish was championed by none other than the First Lady herself, in support of the new culinary movement. As a result of her involvement, this bland meal became a dinner table staple during the Depression years. Bon Appetit. Not.


12. Milkorno

Ah, Milkorno. That exhilarating fusion of powdered milk, salt and cornmeal. As you’ve probably noticed, we’re being more than a little sarcastic here. Because, in reality, this gruel-like substance couldn’t have been more tasteless. And we don’t mean like the interior of a Las Vegas casino. We mean bland. But to be fair, it did provide families with much needed calcium, protein and carbohydrate during the Depression.

Milkorno was developed by boffins at New York’s famous Cornell University in the midst of the Depression. For obvious reasons, in 1933 it was imperative that economical ways to feed the public were found. Step forward the porridge-like mix of cornmeal and powdered milk, along with its cousins Milkwheato and Milkoato. You can surely guess what those just-as-tasty variations comprised of.


11. Jell-O-Ice Cream

Making ice cream without milk, its main ingredient, just isn’t possible, right? Well, as it turns out, it’s a tiny bit possible. Enter gelatin ice cream, a grand impostor, ready to fool your taste buds in an instant. Just mix raspberry Jell-O with plenty of milk, sugar, some vanilla extract and whipped heavy cream. And voila, you’ll have a no-churn, fake ice cream.

As we’ve mentioned numerous times already, many ingredients were either hard to come by or too expensive to purchase during the Great Depression. That’s why Jell-O ice cream, though clearly not the real thing, would have been a pleasure for anyone experiencing the hardship of those years. This particular recipe was recently rediscovered in a book published in 1938, towards the end of the era.


10. Mulligan’s Stew with Tobacco

Now this one isn’t only unusual; it also sounds so unappetizing that just reading about it might make you queasy. You have been warned. Diced potatoes, along with plenty of onions and corn, are thrown into a warm stew of mixed greens picked from the park. Next, whatever meat you can get your hands on and some navy beans are added. Then, for reasons we simply cannot explain, chuck in some tobacco and lint, and hey presto, you’ll have Mulligan’s stew.

This horrendous-sounding dish was reportedly a favorite of hobos, the traveling workers who became synonymous with the Depression years. They likely made it with whatever they could get their hands on, so there will have been several variations. Still, though, there’s no valid reason for putting tobacco in your food. Ever.


9. ‘Fake Fruit’ Vinegar Cobbler

Yet another cleverly devised substitute to cover missing ingredients. The ‘Fake Fruit’ Vinegar Cobbler is a way of achieving the taste and texture of an apple pie without the inclusion of the fruit itself. First roll out some dough and cut it into squares. Then, pour some water into a saucepan and boil it, before adding sugar and apple cider vinegar. Place the dough squares in the pot until thickened, remove them and put more pastry on top. Finally, bake the lot to get a tasty desert.

The ‘fake fruit’ vinegar cobbler has been retrospectively labeled a “Desperation Pie” by some food experts and chroniclers. Perhaps that name is far more apt, given how it landed on millions of American dinner tables during the arduous 1930s. In truth, the deceptive dessert, we’ve been reliably informed, tastes pretty good.


8. Ketchup Sandwiches

Hmmm, not sure you really need a description of this one, but here goes. Acquire two slices of bread. White, whole wheat, whatever. It doesn’t matter one bit. Grab a ketchup bottle and pat or squeeze – depending on your preferred container – the red stuff on to the bread. Slap those bits of baked goodness together, and like magic, you have yourself a ketchup sandwich.

Ketchup sandwiches point to two things: desperation and a serious lack of ingredients, such as meat or cheese. In fact, they’re about as no-frills as it’s possible for food to be, which means they became a very popular snack during the Depression. If sweet, tomatoey goop wasn’t available, then mayonnaise or onions worked just as well.


7. Liver Loaf

Liver loaf, an unholy mush of that slippery offal shaped into a loaf and then baked as if it were bread, was popular during the Depression. Additional ingredients were often added to bulk the dish up, as well as improve the flavor and texture, probably. They included beans, oats, soup, ketchup and a healthy dollop of gravy. After baking, all that was left to do was slice it up and serve.

The baked offal dish was one of a number of similar meals doing the rounds during the Depression made the same way. Often they were stuffed full of single ingredients, such as beans or peanuts. As the offal cut was one of the cheapest and most readily available meats around at the time, liver loaf sat on a lot of American tables.


6. Garbage Plate

Unsurprisingly, the garbage plate is pretty much whatever you want it to be. Everything from cheeseburgers, onions, beef chili, mustard, ketchup, fries, baked beans, macaroni and hot dogs can be thrown on to your ceramic or paper platter to eat. It really is up to you. And that’s the beauty of this low-cost meal.

The garbage plate has been credited with helping many ordinary folk make it through the desperate 1930s. But it went much further than that, helping families through the 1940s and World War II. The dish itself was reportedly invented in Rochester, New York, and is still served there and across the U.S. today. It’s certainly a hearty, easily customizable meal that would satisfy many a rumbling belly.


5. Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast

“Mmm, creamed chip beef,” is likely a sentence no one has ever uttered. And had you been forced to eat this sloppy mess, you wouldn’t say it either. The dish comprises of rehydrated dried beef, along with a bland sauce consisting of milk, flour and a generous dollop of butter. The whole thing is then poured over toast and enjoyed. Or not, as is the most likely scenario.

Believe it or not, this beef-on-toast disaster actually predates the Great Depression. In fact, it was served up during World War I before growing in prominence in the ‘30s and throughout the globe’s second major conflict. Chief recipients of the faux sloppy Joe were U.S. military personnel, who showed their full appreciation for the dish by nicknaming it “Sh*t on a Shingle.”


4. Poor Man’s Meal

The poor man’s meal wouldn’t look out of place in a thrifty student’s kitchen. An unpretentious mix of fried potatoes and diced hotdogs served up to smiling faces, you could also throw a nice tomato sauce and some onions on top for extra tang. Carb heaven, right? And cheap to boot.

The origin of the dish’s name is perhaps obvious, invented, as it was, was for the destitute and struggling in America. The poor man’s meal was thus a staple of many dinner tables during the Depression years, including that of a pleasant senior named Clara. She demonstrated how to cook it for the world back in 2007, appearing on the So Yummy website.


3. Rabbit Stew and Dumplings

The rabbit stew with dumplings eaten during the Depression years is likely pretty similar to your standard idea of the one-pot dish. Except, back then, chicken, pork and beef were often substituted for wild rabbit. So, we’re talking carrots, onions and gravy alongside the meat and dumplings. A flavorsome, protein rich meal, however you feel about its main ingredient.

Of course, during the 1930s, many sources of food were scarce. And if they weren’t, destitute families simply couldn’t afford to buy them. This was particularly the case with most types of meat. As a result, many desperate and resourceful folk turned to hunting wild rabbit, with countless numbers of the furry mammals either trapped or shot for sustenance.


2. Corned Beef Luncheon Salad with Gelatin

Corned beef luncheon salad with gelatin. Just reading that sentence might be enough for some of us to reach for a sick bag. But, we can very much assure you, it’s a real dish, not a nightmare. And that vomiting-feeling only gets worse once you know what the recipe actually consists of. It’s a truly nauseating mix of gelatin, peas, lemon juice, vinegar and corned beef from a can.

Though the dish might make you laugh today, back in the 1930s gelatin was seen as a cutting-edge food. Granted, it was a packed with a fair amount protein, but there are limits. Particularly when the finished product looks so slimy and gross. But needs must, and the common ingredient helped many people stretch their meager rations out, however nasty beef Jell-O might have been.


1. Amish Cold Milk Soup

So who’s to blame for this basic dessert? Step forward the Amish. For twas them who invented this grim dish of floating bananas in cold milk, and they reportedly tucked into it during the Great Depression years. In fact, the cereal-less cereal is still served up regularly today in their tight-knit communities.