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Mar 13, 2012 06:35 AM

My Daughter's School Assignment: Dinner for 4 @ $4

My daughter shopped and cooked a dinner for a 7th grade American History class studying the Depression. The assignment was to make a dinner for 4 for $4 that included a protein. I took her shopping and helped her cook (she hurt her hand playing basketball), but she made the decisions. I offered her advice and my worldly guidance. Or as she likes to say, “my ‘wordy’ guidance.”

We went to Safeway and Grand Mart, an Asian supermarket both close to our house and each other.

This was the first time in a long while I gave such close scrutiny to the price of everything.

We wound up buying at Grand Mart. Broccoli was .79/lb (Safeway 2.60/lb).

She made chicken livers and onion, with sides of broccoli and pasta.

Here is what we bought:

.4lb Spanish Onion at .29 cents/lb (12 cents)
.4 lb broccoli at .79/lb (35 cents)
1.18 lb chicken livers at $2/lb ($2.35)
I lb bag cut ziti ($1.09)

From the pantry she used s&p, 2 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp cooking wine, 3 tbsp seasoned brown vinegar, 1 tbsp flour (the flour was my suggestion, the other ingredients she added a little at a time and tasted. She started off with the cooking wine, but decided to switch to vinegar for more flavor.)

The dinner turned out very well. Though I don’t really know how much protein is in chicken livers.

Aside from chicken livers, ground beef was the only meat we could buy that cheap per pound. Other animal ‘parts’ like tongue or oxtail, were a lot more! Safeway ground beef was $4.40 per pound. We could have spent less on the chicken livers if a butcher could put together just a one pound portion, but nobody was there at night.

We could have saved .09 cents at Safeway by buying $1 per pound pasta.

All in all, en eye opening experience.

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  1. interesting, thanks for sharing. I was surprised at the price difference in broccoli between the two stores. Maybe I should shop around more.

    1. I think you did a good job with this. Congrats to your daughter. The only thing I would mention is that broccoli was not available to the average person in the Depression. However the spirit of the exercise was to produce a budget meal, and your daughter deserves an A. I hope she got it.

      7 Replies
      1. re: sueatmo

        haha such a stickler for details - remind me not to watch a historical movie with you ;) just kidding

        why wasn't broccoli available to the average person? people didn't grow broccoli back in the depression? fresh produce wasn't available? Just in the cities it wasn't available? Just too expensive (were there other more common vegetables - which I would have thought would have been cheaper than proteins)?

        Broccoli seems pretty "hardy" as vegetables go, so I would have thought that it would "travel" better than other vegetables.

        I have to say my food history knowledge of the depression is lacking.

        1. re: thimes

          First of all, it sounds like the project was to reproduce the experience of making do with what seems like impossibly little money, rather than reproducing a Depression-era meal. If broccoli had been available for a few cents a pound, I dare say a lot of people would've been eating broccoli. (sigh)

          But as to shipping out of season, I don't think broccoli really is all that tough where shipping is concerned. It's physically fragile, and has to be kept cold or it'll deteriate in a few days. I don't know either when mass-market refrigerated transport became available, let alone cheap enough to become common for "ordinary" vegs, but I suspect the latter didn't happen until after WWII. Some items like tropical fruits were available pretty early, but they were still too expensive even for the safely-employed to eat as freely as we do today.

          1. re: thimes

            I think the daughter did a good job, and I said so. My comment wasn't meant to be critical.

            I didn't encounter broccoli until late in the fifties, I don't believe. My parents had never eaten it, that I know, until my mother bought some frozen.

            If someone has a different experience, please let us know.

            The guy who produced the old Jame Bond movies--wasn't his name Broccoli, or Bruccoli? It seems to me I've read something about his family popularizing broccoli? Is this a figment or a recollection? Anyone know?

            1. re: sueatmo

              I didn't take your comment to be negative, and I am not sure thimes did either. I am the last person to claim knowledge of food history outside of my own home, so your observations are welcome.

              REALLY worth reading is Cubby Broccoli's bio on IMDB. It brought tears to my eyes:


              1. re: Steve

                I knew there was a connection! Couldn't remember the circumstances though.

              2. re: sueatmo

                i believe broccoli was at one time considered a very "ethnic" ingredient--it was a garden vegetable for folks of italian heritage but it wasn't grown on a widespread commercial scale before 1950s-60s.

                nowadays cases of fresh broccoli arrive iced/wetbox, in the parlance. so not really something that would ship well before very cold refrigerated mass shipping practices were widespread. i've also never seen canned broccoli.

                1. re: soupkitten

                  My first experience was as frozen, I am sure. We did have frozen veggies in the fifties!

          2. Great assignment, interesting.

            Unless a person is of that generation, it's the stories we hear about that period that give us a glimpse of how difficult it was.
            I do know that many had gardens and root vegetables were very important. A dollar a day to serve large families was the norm and, if anyone came knocking at the door looking for work from those who weren't as bad off as others, they also fed them.
            They traded their food, they hunted, they grew whatever they needed.
            And, mainly, they stretched whatever they could.
            Creamed 'anything' was very popular.
            Those were very very different times and, without help from the government, one had to make do....

            2 Replies
            1. re: latindancer

              Plus, people ate what was cheap and kept well over and over and over again.

              A friend of mine who grew up in rural Poland said "Cabbages and potatoes where what we had, so cabbages and potatoes were what we ate." My grandmother hated turnips to the day she died, she ate so many of them as a girl.

              1. re: latindancer

                A friend from Wisconsin sent me a 5-volume spiral-bound compilation of midwestern Depression era recipes and reminiscences. It appears that the author self-published them, and there is a lot of duplication. The recipes sound awful, for the most part. Lots of flour and potato. Anyone who would like them is welcome to them for the cost of postage.

              2. In the 1930s, the cheapest common landlubbing meat would have been pork, then beef; veal would have been mid-priced (it was a byproduct of dairying); poultry generally was dear - for Sabbath/Sunday. Thanksgiving rations for soldiers would be a mound of veal topped with a slice of turkey breast. Salt cod would have been common cheap seafood.

                Eggs are always to be remembered for frugal dining. You can feast on eggs, garlic soup and bread for supper.

                For the truly poor, the time-honored foods would be gruels and porridges (made from the dominant regional staple grain - rice, maize, millet, barley, oats, rye, wheat), soups featured stale bread (bread was more valuable staled than fresh for this reason), potatoes (outside tropical/subtropical zones; for tropical/subtropical zones, substitute sweet potatoes, true yams, cassava, et cet.), and cabbages of divers sorts.

                5 Replies
                1. re: Karl S

                  Quote from Lionel Poilane: "Less than a century ago, the average French person ate a kilo of bread per day. Soup was another way of eating bread, hot and soggy."

                  1. re: Steve

                    In the LIttle Ice Age, by Brian Fagan, I read that peasants and the urban poor of Paris ate little more than bread for centuries. It is so amazing to me that bread today is considered unhealthy. (I eat low carb.) I suppose they burned off their calories working hard and keeping warm. And maybe their daily bread was made of whole grains.

                    And as the Middle Ages waned, turnips began to be grown to feed cattle over winter. Apparently they weren't eaten so much my humans at first. Not terribly sure about this, but that is the impression I got from the book.

                    1. re: Steve

                      And for the prefamine Irish, it was several kilos of potatoes a day per adult. (The ur food of the Irish, though, from before the Columbian Exchange, is buttermilk. Interestingly, buttermilk and potatoes make one of the best peasant food staples there ever has been in terms of complete nutrition. It's why the Irish population ballooned so quickly after potato cultivation became widespread in the second half of the 18th century. Potatoes, btw, had the reputation as the lazy (in the eyes of their landlords, that is) peasants' crop, because it produced greater yield for far less labor than other staple crops. Among grain crops, maize is notable because of its comparative high yield and the ability in suitable regions to get two, even in some places three, potential crops over a long growing season, which was a great hedge against the vagaries of natural disasters...*)

                      All of the great civilizations relied on a staple starch for the foundation of their food pyramids to feed their 99%.

                      * For a parallel in animal husbandry, look to swine and ducks - both grow to slaughter size within a single season (unlike cattle), forage exceptionally well, and provide prodigious amounts of fat (useful in areas without ready access to vegetable oils). It's not shocking that the Chinese esteem swine and ducks so much in their cuisines (eating beef and chicken is more wasteful in the traditional culture, because cattle are draft animals and chickens are for eggs more than eating, as was commonly the case in most pre-industrial cultures).

                    2. re: Karl S

                      'poulty was generally dear'

                      That's why Herbert Hoover ran for President in 1928 on the slogan "A chicken in every pot (an a car in every garage)"
                      The Hover Presidency was supposed to bring prosperity, instead it brought the great Depression, soup and bread lines.....

                      * of course only the very wealthy had garages in 1928 <VBG>

                      1. re: Karl S

                        I think lamb was pretty cheap too, hard as that may be to believe. My mother told me they ate lamb chops endlessly, and she only had one skirt to wear to school.

                      2. Do you live in some magical place where squirrels can't be found? You could have shaved over 25% from her budget and picked up some Little Debbies for dessert.