Preparedness: Depression Era Lessons

We have a New Year’s Day tradition, as most of you do, of fixing a special meal to make sure we have good luck for the year. Our traditional dish is homemade Hoppin’ John’s Black-eyed Peas and Cornbread. We have a side of sauerkraut (for the cabbage part) – just for good measure.

Enjoying simple, inexpensive, yet hearty meals like black-eyed peas always makes me fondly remember my Grandmother, Agnes.

Kids in Wheat FieldI remember, as a youngster, watching my grandmother carefully flatten out a used piece of aluminum foil, until it was smooth again. Then she folded it neatly and put it in a drawer to use again. When I inquired as to why she did this, she explained that during the Depression, they had to save and reuse everything. The habit never left her. We could use more thinking like this.

Our meal this year made me think about all those simple dishes my grandmother and mother fixed for me as I grew up, and how I fixed them for my family, keeping the traditions alive.

When you study recipes from the Depression Era, it’s easy to see how inventive our ancestors were about finding ways to make meals from whatever they happened to have on hand – which many times wasn’t much. I admire their ingenuity.

We still fix these meals in our family, on special occasions and for comfort food. I thought I would share a few of our family favorites with you and see what ones you may have enjoyed as well. In future posts I’ll include recipes. I’ve also listed the main ingredients, so you can see how basic these are to make and why many people survived on these foods.

Homemade Gravy and Biscuits
•Melted meat fryin’s (or lard) flour & milk. You can add sausage or dried beef (if available)
•Served over homemade biscuits
•Leftover biscuits are eaten the next day, warmed, with butter and maple syrup.

Cornmeal Mush
•Cornmeal, salt and water
•We slice the mush, coat with thin layer of flour and fry in bacon grease (lard)
•Serve warm with butter and maple syrup

Potato SoupHomemade Potato Soup
•Potatoes, onion, celery and whole milk (even better with some of the cream left in)
•This was my personal favorite whenever I felt ill as a child

Green Beans, Ham and Potatoes
•Fresh picked green beans, onion, ham hock and quartered potatoes
•Favorite for end of summer harvest, served with sliced tomatoes from the garden

Beef Hash
•Leftover cooked beef, onion and potatoes – celery if available

Homemade Noodles
•Eggs and flour

Soup Beans and Ham
•Dried beans (I like the smaller navy pea beans or pinto beans), ham hock, onion
•Served over cornbread
•Left-over cornbread was served the next morning for breakfast. We crumbled it into a glass of milk and sprinkled a little sugar over it. Homemade cereal.

Note: When I fry bacon, I save the fat and store it in a jar in the refrigerator. This is call Meat Drippings or Meat Fryin’s. Lard is fat rendered from pork and is not Crisco Shortening. Tallow is the fat from beef or mutton – great to use for making soap.

Beans and CornbreadI realize that these foods all use ingredients that we’ve been told are bad for us, such as lard, cream, whole milk and butter. But these recipes were made from what people grew in their gardens, or products from the animals they raised on their land. And I can tell you that not one person in my family was overweight eating this food – most likely because we were physically active and outdoors a lot. But I have to say that one look at the condition of the majority of people today tells me the “approved FDA” foods are not what I want to be eating either!

But truthfully, do I eat these types of food often? Only as an occasional special treat. I too spend the majority of my day sitting at a computer these days. But it’s good to know how to fix these simple, hearty foods for emergencies. And they could just save you from going hungry in hard times.

What are some of your family’s traditional dishes from the past?



  1. Leslie Nack

    You’re making me hungry and I remember my grandmother folding aluminum foil too. I love all those foods, and recently we switched from margarine back to butter for the very reason to you mention: it’s made from whole ingredients and if used sparingly won’t harm us. I do think our descendants were more active than us, and I also agree that we should avoid the foods the FDA thinks we should be eating. All in all, I love your article and can’t wait to make some potato soup!

    • indy

      Ha! Yes, these foods are so good and wonderful “comfort” foods, aren’t they? Agree with you about butter. I have never understood why eating corn oil (margarine) was ever considered healthier than the real deal! I actually purchase Irish Butter for the taste and the fact I know it’s organic. All things in moderation, since we are less active these days.
      We also switched back to the 9-inch sized dinner plates of the 1960’s vs. the 11-inch plates of today. We can have a full plate of food and still be eating smaller portions. Which is one of the problems in this country of over-eating. I could go on and on – but that’s a topic for another blog! Ha
      Yes – homemade potato soup! Enjoy! :0) Thanks for your comments!

  2. Mike Sirota

    True story: I worked on a book with an elderly man quite a few years ago, a memoir about growing up in Venice, CA during the Depression. His mom served a dish that he and his siblings called “Ends Meat,” though he didn’t know how the name came about. He eventually learned that the origin had to do with his mom creating recipes that could go a long way toward the family making ends meet. Kind of touching.

    • indy

      I love that story, Mike. Reminds me of one of my own. When My brother and I were quite young we always called pinto beans “fishy beans”. Years later I asked my mom about it. She said we always took pinto beans to eat while we were fishing and she called them “fishing beans”. My brother and I misunderstood and made up our own name. :0)

  3. Alex Roque

    This is actually one thing that I don’t have because my mom didn’t cook a lot, is family recipes. Maybe we can figure out a way to translate these recipes with all my allergies, I would love to have them for special occasions as well and to share with my husband.

    We are still in the infancy I think in discovering our own favorites for recipes, but maybe soon we will have some we make a lot aside from just rice and fish and spinach, haha!

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • indy

      I Would be honored to share these recipes (such that they are!) with you! Yeah, we eat very lean now – but it’s wonderful to fix these for special times. Comfort food! :0) We’ll have to schedule some “cooking” times together! Ha!



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