Ziegelman tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that the Depression was one of the “most important food moments” in U.S. history. Coe agrees: “The Great Depression was a time when Americans had food front and foremost in their minds and were worrying about it every day.”
Cheap, nutritious and filling food was prioritized — often at the expense of taste. One recipe, which Ziegelman describes as “wrong in every possible way,” combined canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar and lemon juice.
“One of the really interesting characteristics of these Depression menus is that the ingredients seem to have nothing to say to one another,” Ziegelman says. “Whatever [the ingredients] taste like together is not particularly relevant.”
On an example of a Depression-era dinner
Andy Coe: Now when people eat spaghetti, people know that as in Italy, it has to be al dente, like cooked, let’s say, nine minutes or something like that, so it’s still a little bit crunchy. But this spaghetti you were supposed to cook for 25 minutes. So already we’re starting out with the mushy texture. And then you boiled carrots until they’re incredibly soft, and then you make white sauce, which was the sauce which is poured over everything for budget meals during the Great Depression. It’s a mixture of milk, flour, salt and either butter or margarine, with maybe a little bit of pepper. So it’s like a thick and creamy sauce, and you mix all these ingredients into a tray and bake it, and you have a kind of like thick, mushy, bland casserole. Bland is really the operative word here. It does not have much flavor, and it wasn’t really supposed to have much flavor. What it was was a vehicle for nutrition and nutrients, but it wasn’t supposed to make you excited about food.
On the …