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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Caryn Horowitz | Cultural Culinarian

I know what all of the pundits are saying about the economy -- it's like we're in 1929 and we know that 1931 is coming, so we better do something about it.

I have no clue what that something is -- my economic knowledge is limited to the two econ classes I took freshman year -- but constantly hearing this comparison between today's economic environment and that of the Great Depression got me thinking: What types of food did people eat during the Depression?

Like anyone who has gotten past middle school U.S. history, I remember seeing pictures in my textbooks of people lined up to get their rations of staples like milk, bread and sugar. But what did cooks actually do with these ingredients? I have a hard time believing that even with these basic items, all people did was eat plain loaves of bread. I wanted to know what Depression-era cuisine was really like.

Laura Shapiro beat me to it. A frequent contributor to, Shapiro wrote an article on Oct. 13 called "Fear Cuisine" in which she explores new recipes developed during the Depression. There was a surplus of sugar, so icebox cakes and white cakes were the staple desserts of the time. The chocolate chip cookie was invented in the '30s and Bisquick became a pantry staple. This was the era when meatloaf and canned chili were typical entrée dishes.

Almost all of the recipes that Shapiro describes are what we think of today as Americana comfort food: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, cornbread, chili, just to name a few. The Great Depression brought about a nation of stress eaters -- but stress eaters on a very limited budget. Home cooks made simple, stick-to-your-ribs dishes that were both nutritionally and emotionally satisfying. Tucking into a meal like a big bowl of beef stew is comforting, so it makes perfect sense that this is the food that Depression-era cooks turned to.

Classic comfort foods are certainly still part of our culinary landscape, but they have two new reincarnations. First, is the inevitable "gourmetification." It's not uncommon to see items like "truffled macaroni and cheese" on the menu at a high-end restaurant. Chefs are experimenting with elevating comfort foods to new culinary heights. A quick search of updated comfort food yields interesting results. Fried chicken and waffles, a traditional southern dish, has been transformed into "quail with wild rice cakes" and grandma's green bean casserole has been replaced with "haricot vert gratin."

Instead of going the gourmet route, most people turn to the second reincarnation of comfort food -- fast food -- for a quick meal that gets the job done. I think you are more likely to find someone stress eating with takeout Chinese than sitting down at an expensive restaurant. Fast food is about instant gratification (I want dinner and I want it now!), and this is comforting to a lot of people.

We need a compromise. If we are on the verge of another large-scale economic crisis, people will not be spending excessive amounts of money on gourmet comfort food; but that doesn't mean that ordering a pizza every night is the best way to deal with your stress. I think that one of the reasons dishes like stews and soups were so popular during the Depression is the comfort and satisfaction that comes with cooking them. Spending more time in the kitchen and using basic ingredients in interesting ways -- stress cooking instead of stress eating -- might be a great way to work out your frustrations and come up with some new recipes. It certainly did the trick in the '30s.

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