The latest US unemployment figures — worse than expected, again — suggest that the economy remains in the woods. Recovery depends on bringing the new coronavirus under control, yet each day brings record numbers of new cases. Little wonder people are making anxious analogies to the Great Depression.
If these comparisons have merit, we may be in for some lasting changes. It’s conventional wisdom that the Great Depression created a generation of penny-pinchers, but it wrought more subtle transformations as well — in the way people cooked and in how they spent their leisure time. The evidence from the 1930s suggests that life hacks made during hard times have a funny way of outliving the crises that beget them. Something similar may be underway today.
Consider, for example, what happened to the nation’s culinary habits in the wake of the Depression: Wasting food became a deadly sin, and leftovers that might previously have ended up in the garbage or down the drain found their way into new dishes. “You can make the more expensive roast last longer by padding the menu,” declared one cheery advice columnist in the Washington Post in the 1930s. She counselled recycling the roast into meat and vegetable pie, meat loaf or stuffed peppers and then heating the remaining scraps in gravy to serve on biscuits.
Nothing was discarded. After boiling vegetables, cooks would save the water — “vegetable liquor” — to use in soups and sauces. Likewise, vegetables left uneaten on the first round would be pureed, combined with other rejects and presented anew. Housewives often resorted to camouflage to conceal this regifting.
A common strategy was to hide leftovers beneath a generous helping of “white sauce,” a condiment made from condensed milk, butter, salt, flour and water. It was a rare dish in the 1930s that didn’t include a generous helping of this wonder-working sauce. And what of all the leftover white sauce? It would end up in soups, as did most things at some point.
As historians have noted, attempts to combine disparate ingredients from nearly empty pantries lead to strange mash-ups. Corned beef salad, for instance, featured gelatin, canned peas, lemon juice, cabbage and other odds and ends. Gelatin enabled cooks to bind all sorts of disparate ingredients into a jiggly blob.
Mass-produced processed foods also made their debut in the Great Depression: condensed soups, canned meats and other staples. These novelties saved time, money and cooking fuel. And they could be used in combination with other ingredients to create casseroles.
The casserole had made its debut during the economic depression of the 1890s and returned again during World War I. But the Great Depression elevated it to culinary stardom. Casseroles could be bulked out with the previous week’s meals, and no two were ever alike.
Cooks in the 1930s also sought out substitutes for meat, creating various vegetarian versions of meat loaf — including peanut loaf, bean loaf, even lima-bean loaf. Naturally, these loaves often came generously dressed with white sauce.
Most American cooks kept up their Depression-era habits into the 1950s. If you look at postwar recipes — there’s a great website dedicated to testing them — you can see how closely they resemble those from the 1930s. Processed foods and weird casseroles maintained their grip on the American palate until the 1970s and ’80s.
The Great Depression had even more enduring effects on how Americans spent their leisure time. Suddenly, people had more of it, whether they wanted it or not. And they aimed to fill it as cheaply as possible. Consider how sociologists Robert and Helen Merrel Lynd described the lifestyle changes in Muncie, Indiana — which the Lynds referred to as “Middletown.” During the Depression, the white middle- and upper-class families stopped hosting formal dinners or meeting friends at the country club and instead prepared cheap, informal buffet suppers at home. They also rediscovered their own back yards, adding furniture, outdoor grills and vegetable and flower gardens. All of this “sheltering in place” allowed people to entertain themselves at home.
People began playing Monopoly and other complex board games. Cheaper still, and enormously popular among white-collar workers, were challenging card games such as contract bridge. By 1931, some 20 million Americans, about a fifth of the population, played bridge. People in the working class preferred poker and blackjack.
The very idea of having a hobby — a structured, goal-driven leisure pursuit — became immensely popular. People took up stamp collecting, coin collecting, woodworking, even bird watching. In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson’s first “Field Guide to the Birds” sold out immediately.
These new habits also persisted long after prosperity returned. Much of the suburban ideal of the postwar era was built around cheap, homegrown leisure pursuits that came into vogue in the 1930s.
It’s perhaps too soon to know whether today’s crisis will leave so indelible a mark. But we’ve already seen a huge uptick of interest in at-home leisure activities, from vegetable gardens to backyard swing sets to board games. Perhaps the twin traumas of a pandemic and economic catastrophe will mark a broad revival of habits forged in the Depression. That may not be so bad. Just steer clear of lima-bean loaf.
— Stephen Mihm