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Recession-era (both the old and the new) Recipes

I love this board and I use all of you lovely people as a resource constantly. Now I find myself, as so many others, in straitened circumstances. It doesn't change my love of food or cooking, and I - inspired by many of you - choose to see this as a rewarding challenge instead of a drain. Help me keep it up! I'm looking for any and all recipes that your grandmothers cooked in the 1930s, or that you have developed today, to keep you and your family happy and healthy and focused on the things that matter - eating delicious food together, whether or not that delicious food includes truffle butter.

I'll start us off with mujadarah, learned on this board. Who's next?

Thank you so much!

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  1. I've given this a bit of thought myself, and I am not sure that the 'old' recession recipes will work this time around.
    Partly because people don't eat the same way any more (headcheese anyone? A nice bowl of bread and milk?) and partly because what is cheap and good now is not necessarily what was cheap and good last time around.

    However I am open to being proven wrong!

    What do others think?

    2 Replies
    1. re: AnotherMother

      Agreed. I was gifted with a 5-volume spiral-bound collection of Depression-era recipes, mostly from the upper Midwest USA. It has a lot or repetition and was apparently a vanity project of some sort. Plenty of bread and milk type dishes. Very litte use of herbs or spices. I skimmed it pretty thoroughly and saw nothing I would consider making other than things like pancakes, the recipes for which were the same as you'd find today. Matter of fact, if anyone would like it I would be happy to send it C.O.D. for the cost of postage only.

      1. re: AnotherMother

        Lots of people still eat headcheese - why not?

      2. My wife's grandparents emigrated from southern Italy. One of the survival meals that they prepared was 'pasta e fagioli', dialectically known as 'pasta fazool.' The reason I dub it 'survival' is because it contained complete protein due to the combination of a grain and a legume. Pasta fazool is an inexpensive meal. I'm sure that recipes for this dish abound online.

        When my in-laws were alive and they came to visit us from 800 miles away, my wife fed them pasta e fagioli upon there arrival. I was away on a 5th grade camping trip with one of our kids. My in-laws were eating the pasta e fagioli when I got home from camping on a Friday afternoon. I had made the dish using my mother-in-laws recipe. They seemed to be enjoying it. I asked my wife, 'Did you tell them who made the stuff?' She said no. BTW, i miei antenati non erano italiani (my ancestors were not Italian).

        1. I have been making a swiss chard dish with beans. I cook up some bacon, add in sliced onions, when soft I add in cleaned and chopped chard along with some chicken stock, simmer for a bit then add in a can of white beans (rinsed). I serve this on top of soft polenta, it is inexpensive, satisfying, and easy.

          2 Replies
          1. re: JEN10

            this sounds almost like my favorite dish! minus the bacon and chicken stock, vegetarian here. I sauté swiss or neon chard (or rapine) with onions and garlic, then add in some cannelloni beans

            1. re: kubasd23

              I make the same dish, also minus the bacon and chicken stock, and use garbanzo beans instead of cannellini. Also grate some parm over the top. This is great over pasta or rice, as well as polenta.

          2. One of my then-as-now tips is homemade bread. As yeast is more expensive than in our grandmothers' day, I've toyed with starting a sourdough "mother." But a nice slab of fresh bread with a bit of butter or olive oil helps to stretch your proteins and vegetables. Stale bread tossed into soup gives it body, or use as croutons, bread crumbs, etc. (I like the Amish White Bread recipe here: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/amish-wh... - it is a simple bread, but for some reason always turns out beautifully for me, and makes great sandwich bread.


            My grandmother never (never!) threw anything away, but not in a hoarders kind of way. She'd reuse foil (seriously lol), feed scraps to her barn cats, save every single plastic container that came into her home. Now obviously I'm not advocating this extreme thrift, but some things are worth looking at - for instance, what *do* you do with empty glass jars? If you're not washing them and using them for everything from herbs in your fridge to storing rice in the pantry or whatever, you're throwing away money. Remind yourself that you didn't just pay for the olives, but the jar as well and you'll be more likely to save it, in my experience. Oh, and in my family, it's considered a sin (Sin!) to throw bacon grease out. Period.

            One of my favorite dinners - cost be damned - is actually around $3 for my husband, two teenage daughters and 20yo bottomless-pit son. I made frybread (4C flour, 1 1/2T baking powder, 2 tsp. salt, 2 cups milk - just mix, let sit, knead for about 3 minutes, let sit for 10 minutes while you heat oil for deep frying, then pinch off golfball sized pieces and pull them into a rounded shape about 4 inches around. Pull a slight tear in the middle to help with even cooking, and fry in hot oil for about 3-4 minutes a side), and serve it with tacos made from a mix of ground beef and lentils, plus onion, garlic, cumin, Mex. oregano, beef broth and a bit of El Pato Salsa Fresca - a hot canned tomato sauce. Due to the frying, it's an occasional treat, but one that we all love. I can guarantee my grandmother would've looked at this recipe as if it had sprouted horns from Satan himself, so.. yeah, tastes change. :)

            But I do love to look back at what she cooked, and play with it for today - one of my current "kicks" is chicken and dressing (cornbread dressing is common in the South), followed closely by fried chicken or chicken & dumplings. Comfort food from items that are almost always on hand in my kitchen (corn mean, flour, etc).

            9 Replies
            1. re: shanagain

              Thanks for all of the sound advice!! I've never made chicken and dumplings - do you have a favored recipe?

              1. re: oldfangled

                I don't care for traditional rolled type dumplings, I like big fluffy ones, and I don't go by a recipe anymore, but this version from Lisa at homesicktexan is in the ballpark:

                Essentially, though, I don't thicken it with cream, but with a quick roux of equal parts butter and flour, and like this recipe everything but the kitchen sink may find its way in. But I linked to that recipe because one of my favorites is to add cubed potatoes back to the broth during the simmering stage, as well as drained/rinsed and chopped jarred napolitos - prickly pear cactus that tastes vaguely like green beans.

                Oh, and I add a handful of shredded cheddar to the dumplings. (Parmesean, garlic, and a bit of fresh oregano or thyme are really REALLY good on top of beef stew.)

                1. re: shanagain

                  In my old neck of the woods, traditional dumplings are not rolled at all; they are essentially drop biscuits, scooped up with a spoon and dropped onto the simmering gravy. Twenty minutes under the lid, no peeking allowed, and there are your big fluffy calorie-bombs, gooey on the outside and light but firm within. Oh, heaven.

                  I do have a recipe I haven't tried yet, from North Carolina, for dumplings made from strips of rolled-out biscuit dough. This seems like an interesting hybrid of our biscuit dumplings and other regions' noodle-dough dumplings.

                  1. re: Will Owen

                    When I think "traditional" that's exactly what I think of - a biscuit dough that's been rolled out and cut into strips. My grandmother was originally from Georgia and moved to Texas in her 20's, so I'm not sure which of those regions consider that "traditional," now that I think of it.

                    All I know is when I make "my" dumplings my mom always mentions "those aren't dumplings!"

                  2. re: shanagain

                    So it's essentially a chicken stew (or the innards of a chicken pot pie) topped with biscuits? Sounds delicious! I'll bet it would even be good (and somewhat cheaper) as a vegetarian dish with enough beans and seasoning!

                    1. re: oldfangled

                      Exactly - and yes, there are MANY variations you can play with.

                      1. re: oldfangled

                        Actually, there are plenty of chicken "pie" recipes whose crust consists of biscuits, either partly baked and then laid on top of the filling and finished in the oven, or laid on raw and baked. To make them be dumplings they're cooked in the hot simmering stew instead of being baked, and they can be rolled biscuit dough (shanagain's method) or dropped in by spoonfuls (my method). Each is different and each is good, though the bake-from-raw biscuit topping never seems cooked enough for my taste.

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          My dumplings turn out light and fluffy, but I want the dense/leaden ones of my youth! Ideas?

                          1. re: pine time

                            I think the dumpling recipe handed down from my grandma is the type you're looking for. It's pretty simple--about a cup of flour, an egg or two, and a bit of salt for seasoning. You don't want the mix to be too firm; instead, it's about the consistency of ricotta. Then, you just take a spoon, scoop up a bit and drop it into the boiling soup. Usually, I leave them boil for about 10 minutes. Sorry about the lack of measurements, but you know these are the types of recipes that no one ever had measurements for :)

                2. What a great idea for a thread!!
                  My grandmother used to make tomato & macaroni soup that goes something like this:
                  Combine in pot:
                  1 28oz can diced tomatoes
                  5 cups water
                  2 small onions, roughly chopped
                  1 or 2 bay leaves
                  1 tbsp sugar
                  1 tsp salt
                  Bring to boil, turn down heat, cover & simmer for 45 min - 1 hour (until onions are very soft)
                  Add 1-2 tbsp butter (or oil to keep it vegan), then 1 cup elbow macaroni.
                  Cover and cook until pasta is tender.
                  We would always enjoy this with a bit of milk to cool the soup and some home-made bread. I think of my frugal grandmother every time I make this, and wish I'd paid closer attention to all of the other things she did.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: hungryjoanne

                    The soup sounds delicious! I wish I had a frugal grandmother to learn from - mine was one of the first demonstrators of packaged and frozen foods in the 1950s, and so even though she is 90 years old, she's never cooked a thing from scratch in her life!

                  2. I make soups, often with beans. I make my own stock from wings and backs I buy cheaply at the local Kosher market, and don't bother with any other flavorings in the stock (no onion, no celery, no carrot, just chicken bones). I add vegetables and noodles and beans at their appropriate cooking moments, depending on what I'm making.

                    Normally, I use a rind or two from old wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which I keep in the fridge, when I make the soup. Of course, that's not going to fit into a recession-budget soup, but if you should happen to run into a friend who has a rind or two...

                    1. I'm in the same situation, so I understand the circumstances. I'm not sure if any recession-era recipes would work, but I now shop daily instead of a weekly haul. I first look at the meat department as I try to find the manager's specials which make excellent finds and a challenge to use cuts of meat that you normally wouldn't. Sadly, I have found excellent cuts of meat for less than a cost of a bottle of water. Like Jay F, I have also made my own stock, and I have no issue for separating a whole chicken on discount. After the meat dept, then I waltz over to the produce section at look again at the manager's special. Often I find tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, apples, and peppers for a discounted price. Sometimes fate makes the choice in the meal, but I made an outstanding beef stroganoff from scratch for about $ 3.00 for two people last week.

                      Remember, now you have time (plus cold weather is coming), so look forward to stews, soups, and other baked goods. Good luck!

                      1. Split pea soup...the peas are cheap, all you need is a hunk of something smoked (pork neckbones are very inexpensive, I used to use smoked turkey but they are now pricey!) Lots of big chunks of carrots. It's actually better a day or two after you use it. One package of peas makes a big pot -- I like the soup for breakfast a lot. A pan of cornbread and maybe some homemade coleslaw and you're set.

                        I've also been liking cabbage a lot lately...saute a whole bunch in a butter or olive oil till it's a bit brown on the edges and combine with buttered noodles. Really good and hearty.

                        Down the road, turkey will be your friend -- take advantage of the really big sales on a whole turkey. Our local store give you a free or 25 cents/pound turkey if you spend over $25 or something dollars. Buy two, cook one and you'll have food for two weeks including soup. Deconstruct the other and freeze for another time.

                        One more, obviously, is pasta. Basic marinara is cheap to make...or just pasta with oil, garlic and a hit of chilis.

                        I always check the "seconds" rack at the grocery store for items that are near expiration...made great stuffed peppers the other night, the peppers were 4/1 buck.

                        Hope you find some good stuff.. I can appreciate your situation.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: berkleybabe

                          Mr Pine and I were starving students when we married, so split peas or lentils were a regular on our menus...with either rice or a whole wheat bread, it made a complete protein that was not only filling, but nutritious and healthy. Now, decades later, we still have it often.

                        2. Having grown up quite poor, with a mother whose talent for cooking exceeded her mother's (great baker, could ruin a hot dog) and was rather less than her dad's (best cook in the family, BOTH sides, bar none), I ate an awful lot of penny-pincher recipes from her loose-leaf BH&G cookbook, most of which I really loved, Tuna-noodle casserole, porcupines, "goulash" made with bacon, hamburger, canned tomato soup and kidney beans over noodles. and the wonderful Marietta (hamburger, onions, canned tomatoes, kidney beans, elbow macaroni and grated cheddar, insanely good) were things I thought we ate because they were so good, not realizing they were the best we could afford. The test, for me, is that Mrs. O is a child of privilege, with a father who cooked classic French, but all my humble childhood dishes I've served her (except for the pot roast hash, darn it) she has loved.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Will Owen

                            I just got finished reading "Grapes of Wrath". They ate a lot of biscuits, bacon, and pan gravy. Fried dough when they were really hard up.

                            Seriously, noodles are a great budget meal. That's why the noodle shops are so successful - biggest margins in the restaurant industry. I buy packaged fresh udon noodles, and drop them into a sauce of coconut milk and packaged curry paste. Availability of these ingredients may depend where you live. Easy fast and cheap, and a change of pace from all that comfort food.

                            1. re: MarkC

                              Two great books about depression-era deliciousness: "A Taste of Country Cooking" by Edna Lewis, and "Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression" by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. The latter is well-worth tracking down, as it's an incredibly entertaining read. You'll learn how to prep your hog's head for head cheese!

                            2. re: Will Owen

                              Good move from Larousse to the BH&G and the fact she came with ya.

                              1. re: Will Owen

                                Would you mind elaborating on the "wonderful" Marietta? I've never heard of it but I'm always up for anything insanely good...

                                1. re: oldfangled

                                  The version I grew up with is: brown ground beef, add chopped onions and peppers (Mom used bell, I use poblanos), plus a bit of salt and whatever other seasoning you want. When onions are transparent add a can of chopped tomatoes and a can of drained kidney beans, then stir in al dente elbow macaroni, then a couple of handfuls of grated cheddar. Stir everything together and then cover and keep hot but not simmering for, oh, half an hour maybe. Quantities? Nobody in my family ever bothered to write this down; it's just something we made. If you go over it carefully you'll see why: it would be impossible to make this NOT taste good unless it were burnt or over-salted. I go heavier on the macaroni than Mom did, and sometimes I use egg noodles instead. Mom also always put in a bay leaf; she did that to anything this side of oatmeal …

                              2. This is one of my mother's old favorites - more from laziness than economy, but it works both ways. Mix a can of tomato soup and a can of split pea soup. Add imitation seafood and some curry powder. If you want to make it elegant you can sprinkle in some cheap cooking sherry. And you're done. Everyone will think it's fine bistro fare.

                                A can of mushroom soup is often the centerpiece of a budget meal. Think hamburger stroganoff over noodles.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: MarkC

                                  I believe that's in an old Fanny Farmer we have under the name of "Billi Bi". I've been intrigued, but never enough to try it.

                                  Cream of Mushroom was the third major ingredient in tuna-noodle casserole, but we loved it simply as soup, too. One of my favorite lunch items when I was a kid.

                                2. It may not be depression - era, but it's still cheap and filling: daal.

                                  Daal is the classic Indian dish and very easy to make. Cook lentils with water, add whatever seasoning you prefer, add a few chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic if you want. Towards the end fry an onion in a separate skillet with some oil and stir into the daal as a finishing touch.

                                  Serve with rice.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Roland Parker

                                    Ah yes, lentils. Cheap, filling and quite good. I like my lentils cooked and combined with cooked spinach and onion.

                                  2. With this thread in mind I cooked something last night I'd never have usually done - creamed chicken over rice.

                                    Made a roux of flour and butter (plus a little olive oil), added water & milk, chicken base (I'm out of stock), S&P to taste, some fresh sage from my dad's garden-goodie-bag, a splash of sherry and some parmesan (not very good - store grated). Then added cooked chicken from a roaster I made the night before, a bit of nutmeg, some frozen peas (I will put frozen peas in just about anything, including salad when they're still frozen) and served over rice.

                                    While definitely not a normal dish for me, it was really good, if missing something I can't define. (I'm thinking white wine, maybe, somewhere in the process?)

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: shanagain

                                      Slivers of pimento from a jar, and you've just about got Chicken à la King. Some sautéed mushrooms, too - Grandma would have used canned, because Kroger didn't have cheap raw ones year around. Your sherry and parmesan are sending it in the direction of Tetrazzini; I wouldn't use both sherry and white wine, but nobody's going to put you in jail for trying it.

                                    2. My Italian grandparents both came from big families with no money. One of their mainstays was chickpeas over pasta. Fry a sliced onion in olive oil and add garlic to taste. Add two cans of chick peas, putting the chickpeas in the pan first and slowly adding the liquid. Cook until soft and then mash them in the pan. The chickpea mash should be moist, not dry and chunky, so add more water if that happens. Prepare a pot of spaghetti and top the spaghetti with the mashed chickpeas and enjoy. I love this with a lot of garlic! And can feed a lot of people very cheaply.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Kat

                                        and if you cook the chickpeas from scratch, it'll be even cheaper.

                                      2. My depression era parents were Polish, and many of my favorite Polish foods are great values....such as kluski (noodles) served with bacon, kapusta (sauerkraut) with a smoked ham hock, pazcki ( fried bread dough). Also, my mom gew up in W. Virginia, and they often had a pot of pinto beans (again cooked with a smoked ham hock) on the stove.

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: momskitchen

                                          I've picked up smoked ham hocks before and used them whole to flavor a pot of beans, but I never know what to do with them afterward. There doesn't seem to be enough meat to really USE in anything. Am I just getting skimpy ham hocks, or is it almost all skin and fat?

                                              1. re: LaLa

                                                Yeah, and you don't want to boil them hard, either. I get the meatiest ones I can find, and put them in to simmer with the beans after they've come to the boil and had the heat turned down. When the beans are done I take out the hocks and peel off the skin and fat and cut the meat into bits. There's not ever a lot, but it adds interest and a nice little salty pork bite here and there. If I want chunks of meat in the beans I'll add it towards the end - cooked meat right at the end, uncooked sausages roughly half an hour before.

                                          1. My mom always made a very simple soup that everyone wanted her to make when they were visiting. Now I make it because it is so tasty.

                                            EW's Soup

                                            Sauté 1 large yellow onion in a small amount of bacon grease or olive oil. Add 2-4 potatoes that have been peeled and chopped to bite size. Crush 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes then add to pan including juice. Fill the tomato can about 1/2 way with water or broth and add to pan. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper (don't use too much pepper, just enough to give it a tiny zing). Cook until potatoes are soft. We always like to have cornbread with Mom's soup.

                                            I hope I didn't leave anything out, I have done this from memory. Regardless, this is so very simple, with ingredients that one nearly always has in the pantry, and the taste of the soup is so, so good.

                                            1. Grandma was really old, D.O.B. 1890.

                                              As young lad in early 60's I treasured our visits,
                                              in her shotgun style cabin with weathered wood floors.

                                              She had few teeth, but she chortled with glee
                                              as she opened her cabinets to display cans of salmon.

                                              All that she needed was a can of that salmon
                                              and some eggs and some crushed saltines.
                                              Along with some bacon grease.

                                              For sure we both liked them.

                                              Fifty years hence, I've amended her recipe
                                              but her simple simplicity remains.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: FoodFuser

                                                Nothing like spending time with your grandma!!! I still laugh at our cooking adventures and treasure them dearly.

                                                1. re: FoodFuser

                                                  My not-so-old mom used to make something similar for us every few weeks, except we used tuna and Ritz crackers. I hate to say it, but right now it sounds kind of good!

                                                2. Ask any old Norwegian what the ultimate last chance meal is and you will get pine bark soup. It is to die for. Literally. From malnutrition.

                                                  If survival is a factor, I would recommend stone soup. Send the kids out to find at least three stones the size of their fists. Do some hocus pocus over them and put in a pot. Add the cheapest veggies and boil. These are usually tomatoes, onions, and carrots. Salt and pepper is required and any other herb or spice is a bonus.

                                                  Eat two thirds and then fill with water. Add mild veggies as funds allow. Always top off with water. Any meats and beans are a big bonus. Boil to keep the buggies down once every day or two. If you add stuff when the kiddies aren't home, the magic will always be in place.

                                                  Or just go to Big Lots and get 10 ramen noodles for $1.00.

                                                  1. I definitely recommend any country's peasant food, modern or historical. Peasants have always had to scrimp to feed themselves, and often feed large families. Not only that, they had to feed themselves well enough to do back-breaking physical labor for many hours a day without getting ill. Naturally, you'll buy produce, which is expensive, only when it's in season, or frozen vegetables when they go on sale.

                                                    Search for "Aunt Clara" on YouTube. She's about 94 years old or so, and has a series of videos on Depression-era cooking. She tells great stories, too, and I bought her slim cookbook just for kicks.

                                                    Vegetarian and vegan can be very cheap if you skip the truffles, $50 bottles of olive oil, and so on. I was a vegetarian for around 30 years. If you cook your own dry beans,and buy from a great company like Rancho Gordo, they taste fabulous. Remember, legumes are your friend. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan are your friends, too, if you're not allergic/sensitive to them. Rice, pasta, noodles. . .

                                                    I hope better financial times come to you soon.

                                                    1. I suppose dessert is a luxury.... but a cheap chocolate cake can be made without eggs and butter.

                                                      I remember when I made a vegan chocolate cake with oil and vinegar. My grandmother loved it and asked for the recipe... upon first glance, she exclaimed: oh, this is recession cake! :)

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: blinknoodle

                                                        Those vinegar chocolate cakes are delicious, I love them.

                                                        And in our family (a generation ago) dessert definitely wasn't a luxury, but another inexpensive part to the meal. Basically now that I think of it, though my family were dairy farmers and didn't use much butter or cream (milk is sold by the butterfat content, so you don't mess with that), there were always cakes, pies and cobblers, since peach or pecan trees were common and/or preserved goods were turned to dessert.

                                                      2. Thank you all so much for your amazing and inspiring recipes. When I posted this, I was working at a very low-paying job. This past Friday, I lost that job. So your helpful tips and encouragement mean even more to me now! Thank you all so much for your generosity. This is a wonderful community.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: oldfangled

                                                          Well, I'm very, very sorry for your bad news. I know you're not the only one here making due with much less than in the past. You've got hounds here to keep the good food coming. Best wishes for a better chapter opening soon.