Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Great Depression (ramblings)

I'm reading a book about how the Great Depression changed America's eating habits: "A Square Meal:  a Culinary History of the Great Depression".  It has sparked memories of stories my mother told me about that time in her life.    

Mother and Daddy got married on Christmas Eve, 1932. (you can read the account in her own words HERE).  They survived by working for farmers as "hired hands" during those years.  Now, according to the book I'm reading, farmers' crops weren't worth much at that time, so it's no wonder my parents worked for such low wages.  Mother used to tell me how much Daddy got paid per week:  I don't remember the amount, but I'm sure it was less than $3 weekly.  She told stories of walking to town when snow had drifted over the fences, or how they would put the last of their coal oil in the gas tank of their car in order to drive to town to buy more coal oil to use in the lamps that supplied their lighting.  I asked Cliff, "Is that even possible?  Can a car run on kerosene?"  

Apparently so, at least in the cars of those days.  

Mother always said the Great Depression didn't affect them and their friends much, because they didn't have much to start with.  However, there was one winter when they lived mainly on cornfield beans, frozen potatoes, and water gravy.  Evidently the farmers' cows were dry, because there wasn't any milk to make gravy.  The "cornfield beans" were simply pole beans planted with the corn so the vines could use corn stalks for support.  They were picked when they were dry, to use as dry beans.  The potatoes were given them by the wife of the farmer they worked for:  As long as the potatoes stayed frozen, Mother said, they were usable... toss them in boiling water still frozen and they were OK.  If they thawed, they turned black and were useless.  Knowing what I know about Missouri weather, I imagine these frozen potatoes were used over a short period of time.  Nobody had a deep freeze, or even a refrigerator. so they wouldn't have stayed frozen for long.    

According to the book I'm reading, casseroles came into being during the Depression, devised by nutritionists as a way to use up leftovers and scraps.  This reminds me of a time several years back when Uncle Leo and Aunt Mary came to visit my mother, who lived on our property at the time, and I made spaghetti for all of us.  Uncle Leo was eating enthusiastically when he put down his fork, looked up smiling, and said, "Boy, this is a meal fit for a king!"

I was telling my cousin, his daughter Betty, about this and she said, "Well, Mom and Dad generally had the kind of meals with meat, potatoes, and a vegetable or two arranged on a plate.  They would never have had spaghetti at home, so it was probably a treat for him."  

Mother told me plenty about the Depression as I was growing up, and I soaked the stories up like a sponge because, as everybody knows, I like stories.  She talked about how neighbors would get together and play cards or make ice cream.  She told how her mom, my Grandma Stevens, always invited someone to their house for Sunday dinner when she was growing up, and recalled she and her sister "looking" the dry beans they'd be cooking for dinner before church.  Do I remember Mother and Aunt Ruby were going down memory lane and talking about using a rock to scour the dirty skillet?  Is that a figment of my imagination or a dream?  Did they really use a rock to get pans and skillets clean?  Who knows.

Mother and Aunt Ruby liked to talk about all the Church-of-Christ congregations they remembered, naming the preachers they'd heard (Brother Campbell was mentioned most often), verifying or correcting one another's stories.  

Of course, Mother carried on the tradition of Sunday dinner.  If strangers were passing through and showed up at church, she'd invite them home with us.  She liked to feed people, but most of the people of that generation were like that.  Cliff and I visited his grandparents at Versailles one time, making it a point to eat before we arrived so his grandma wouldn't be burdened with having to prepare a meal for us.  As soon as we arrived, she started taking food out of the refrigerator and setting it on the table; we assured her we had already eaten.  She got so upset there were tears in her eyes.  She wanted to feed us!  We actually had to eat a little snack to make her happy.

Home economics was sort of a new thing at the start of the Depression.  The government had people who tried to teach housewives different ways of preparing food in those hard times.  It turns out a couple of my childhood favorite foods was made popular back then:  creamed vegetables and creamed macaroni.  When I was probably 13, I asked Mother to fix some creamed carrots.   She told me how to make them myself, since she was tired from working at a factory all day, and for once in my life, I ate creamed carrots to my hearts content.  I used to beg Grandma to make creamed macaroni when I was staying with her.  I think she found it peculiar that someone would actually request that dish, but I loved it.  It really isn't so much different from pasta with Alfredo sauce, only without the parmesan. 

Gypsies didn't move any more often than my parents!  (Click on the picture to make it larger.)  I think it was some time in the 40's they stopped working as hired hands and became switchboard operators.  

And this only takes it up to 1952.  

I'm in my wintertime blogging slump, so what you see here is what you get.  I won't be babysitting much in the next several days (holidays, bad weather, etc.), so maybe I'll get my mojo back.  Or not.  


*I'm adding a link, thanks to a reminder from a Facebook friend.  I had forgotten about Clara's Depression Cooking, a series of Youtube videos.  Click HERE.


I'm mostly known as 'MA' said...

Casseroles were always on my menu and still are. Pasta of all kinds especially mac and cheese and spaghetti were favorites at my house. I heard a lot of the depression from my folks and how they still managed to be happy. Money isn't everything for sure.

Rita said...

I don't remember reading the story about your parents wedding and marriage. I knew you had a half sister, and I always wondered the details of whether someone died or divorced or other possibilities.

If your dad's aunt took the baby boy when his first wife died in childbirth, that means that you have or had a half-brother out there somewhere. I have never heard you mention him. I'll bet there is a story there, but maybe something you would rather not share.

Merry Christmas to you.

Anita said...

I've been reading a book on FDR's conservation efforts and accomplishments. Your story ties into those days. It's good that you're journaling your thoughts and memories.

I clicked over the the wedding post. Love the photo!

By the way, I hope I get my blogging mojo back soon, too. You're doing MUCH better than me!

Margaret said...

I love casseroles because of the variety of ingredients; I didn't know the reason behind that. My dad grew up during the Depression and it has shaped him. He hates waste of any kind, especially food.


Fascinating history of food to be sure. some folks say the stock market is going to be in for another big crash if it hits over 20,000. i wonder how we'll survive if it does.

Leonora said...

I too loved hearing my mom's Depression stories. The Depression era produced a hardy and creative bunch of people! There's many lessons we can all learn from them : )
Merry Christmas!

Donna Wood said...

Rita, the story of my brother is one I would share with you privately. I hope you see this... if you do, email me at and I will tell you the story.

Mary Degli Esposti said...

I've never had creamed carrots or macaroni, but creamed corn the one time I ate it tasted floury. Now I almost never cook, but I used to love to feed people, too...especially people who seemed to need it. These days if strangers are passing through most people are leery of them.