Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
With inflation at 40-year highs and worrisome news events coming at us every day, it’s natural to wonder how other generations handled hard times. An era that looms large in terms of past national crises is the Great Depression.
Many of us know stories of how a great grandparent scrimped and saved during the 1930s. After all, the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929 triggered an economic collapse that lasted more than a decade. As banks failed and businesses closed, more than 25 percent of America’s workforce became unemployed.
Historians have captured fascinating details about how the Great Depression changed our way of life. One of the primary changes occurred in our kitchens. In their book, A Square Meal, Jane Siegelman and Andy Coe discuss how food scarcity in what many had considered a land of plenty transformed our collective relationship with food.
“The Great Depression was a time when Americans had food front and foremost in their minds and were worrying about it every day,” Coe said in an NPR interview promoting the release of his book.
For the first time, the federal government took steps to feed its citizens, and new terms like “food scientist,” “home economist,” and “dietary recommendations” entered our vocabularies as people searched for answers to our nation’s hunger problem.
New food conglomerates even began offering packaged and processed foods to meet the growing technology of the 20th century and the convenience modern Americans sought.
Yet, as we have before and since – especially during tough times – many Americans took things into their own hands by growing their own food in the 1930s. Their efforts to make the best use of what they had can teach us some important lessons about food storage.
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Use What You Have to “Make Do”
During the Depression, many folks used the phrase “make do” as in, “We’ll make do with this for now.” Those two words represented a resilience and a strength to get through the tough times.
Recollections from Doris Zicafoose, submitted as part of the Mother Earth News “Wisdom from Our Elders,” speak to the spirit of “making do.”
“Preserving food was a big part of our summers,” Zicafoose writes. “I remember a time or two when my folks tried drying corn. My dad found a metal signboard, and they spread the corn we had cut off the cob on the sign and put it out in the hot Oklahoma sun.
“It had to be covered with cheesecloth to keep the bugs off, and if a rain shower appeared, we had to hurry and bring in the corn. But was it ever worth it! That was the most delicious corn; it had a distinctive flavor, very different from canned or fresh corn.”
Here are some food storage tips we can learn from people who lived through the Great Depression.
Extend The Life of Your Fresh Produce by Canning
Home canning became a means of survival for many Depression-era families. In Emily Thacker’s Recipes and Remembrances of the Great Depression, Mildred B. recalls that her family canned corn and tomatoes. “You poured boiling water over the tomatoes, and the skins slipped right off,” Mildred writes.
“The corn had to be cut off the cobs with the big butcher knife, and I hated that part. My hands would ache by the end of the day. But it was worth it. Those half-gallon jars of yellow corn and red tomatoes sure looked good setting on the shelves of the fruit cellar.”
Expand Your Repertoire
Green beans (commonly called string beans during the Great Depression) and cut corn were the most frequently canned vegetables. But thrifty 1930s homemakers also canned dandelion leaves, radish leaves, Swiss chard, spinach, and collard greens.
“We Can Pickle That”
Fans of the TV show Portlandia know all about pickling. But seriously, we can thank Depression-era home cooks for taking pickling to a whole new level.
Pickling preserves food by submerging it in a salty, acidic solution, such as lemon juice or vinegar. Adding spices to the solution can enhance the flavor of the food.
Of course, cucumbers led the pickling list of vegetables, but not far behind were carrots, onions, beans, cauliflower, squash, okra, beets, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. Homemakers also made a pickled relish of mixed chopped vegetables.
Whereas pickling involves soaking a food into an acidic brine, fermenting does not involve any added acid. The sour flavor that results from fermentation is due to a chemical reaction between the food’s sugars and any naturally present bacteria.
Many of America’s German and Asian immigrants were well-acquainted with fermentation and used the process to preserve leftover and end-of-season vegetables during the Depression.
Here are recipes for eight fermented foods you might want to try.
Dry Your Fruits and Veggies
Drying (or dehydrating) was another means of food preservation that was popular during the Depression.
By using a combination of warmth, low humidity, and air current, you can remove enough moisture from a food so that bacteria, yeast, and mold cannot grow. Another bonus? Dried food retains much of its nutrition. This article offers a quick primer on food dehydration.
Create a Root Cellar
As anyone who has read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy knows, root cellars were an integral part of pioneer life. However, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information encouraged Americans to reacquaint themselves with this ancient means of food preservation.
When the Dust Bowl sharpened the misery of the Depression for many Americans living in the drought-stricken Southern Plains region of the United States, root cellars helped families preserve what little they had.
In a recollection of gardening during the Dust Bowl, Nancy Hendrickson writes about her family’s vastly diminished potato crop of 1934.
“Inger and John finished picking potatoes. I put a barrel and a box in the cellar to put them into. We only got about 12 bushels in all. None larger than chicken eggs, mostly the size of pigeon eggs and smaller.”
This small yield was a great disappointment for someone who usually harvested 500 bushels of potatoes and was able to put 200 bushels in her root cellar.
However, the previous fall, Hendrickson had packed some carrots and beets in sand her root cellar. They were still in good shape, and her thriftiness helped her family survive the small potato crop.
By definition, a root cellar is a storage location that uses the natural cooling, insulation, and humidity of the earth. For information on how to create your own root cellar, check out this article in The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Use New Technology
Depression-era homemakers embraced new methods to make and preserve food. Home refrigerators and the advent of frozen food were game-changers.
In the 1910s and 1920s, Clarence Birdseye worked as a fur trapper in Newfoundland, Canada. His observations of frozen food there eventually led to his experimentations with frozen peas and the rise of the frozen food industry.
At the beginning of the 1930s, just 8 percent of American homes had an electric refrigerator. However, by the end of the decade, that number jumped to 44 percent. Newspaper and magazine ads from the times reveal a luxury item that came rapidly down in price over the course of the Depression.
For those lucky enough to have this modern appliance in their kitchens, freezing meats and produce became a way to preserve fresh food for their families.
How Can You Know Your Preserved Food Is Still Safe to Eat?
Maintaining a stored food supply has been an essential part of survival for countless generations in times of need. However, one of the big questions people had both then and now concerns the safety of their preserved food. Here are five factors to consider when storing food.
Temperature: Temperature is critical to a food’s shelf life. The USDA states that for every increase of 10.8 degrees in temperature, you decrease the shelf life of stored food by half. The best temperature range for a pantry is between 40 and 60 degrees.
Moisture. For long-term storage, foods should have a 10 percent or less moisture content.
Oxygen. Removing oxygen from a food and its packaging helps it maintain freshness.
Light. Exposure to sunlight can degrade food.
Container. Aim to store foods in food-grade plastic, metal, or glass containers that have a tight seal.
Pests. To keep insects and other pests out of your stored food, here are some general guidelines:
- Freeze grain-based food for a few days before long-term storage to kill insect eggs and larvae.
- Store food in air-tight plastic or metal containers.
- Use the first-in, first-out (FIFO) rotation method.
- Immediately clean up any food spills.
- Regularly wipe out pantry shelves and vacuum the pantry area.
- Keep food up off the floor.
- Use caulking to seal cracks or anywhere food is stored.
The shutdowns and supply shortages triggered by the pandemic caused many Americans to turn to home gardening for some of their own food. The trend seems to be continuing as we face more uncertainty in our daily lives.
A National Gardening Association study conducted not long before the pandemic found that about one-third of American households grew some of their own food. A May 2021 survey of 2,000 Americans found that about 65% of respondents were growing some of their own produce.
Although the 1930s must have been a scary time to live through, a sense of positivity runs through much of the diaries and letters from that time. Here’s an example from Mildred B., who we heard from earlier:
“The Depression of the 1930s was a hard time in which to grow up, but I cannot be too bitter about our family’s lack of money. There were more important things like a loving family, loyal friends, and 60 acres of field and pasture for children to roam over that more than compensated for the lack of material goods. We always had horses to ride and a bit of fertile earth for a garden. With God’s help, we made it through the hard times of the Great Depression.”
However, you view that sense of positivity – whether it’s the half-full glass metaphor or a “this too shall pass” way of thinking – Mildred may have hit on the best lesson of all from the Great Depression years.
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