I have just finished a grueling schedule on a TV show that was based on a 1937 crime involving a model, a sculptor and an upholsterer. All their lives had been upended by the Depression.
To prepare for it, I did a bucket of research and learned a good deal more about the way people were living in 1937 New York City than I had known before.
To say the least, sophisticated Art Deco style wasn’t flourishing with most of the populace in the Depression
Furniture, even clothes from the 20’s kept going long into the decade because for many there wasn’t enough money for socks let alone new chairs.
People who had been used to living a comfortable life crashed down the economic ladder. Many lost their homes and were forced to move to much less desirable housing in much less desirable neighborhoods like the characters in my story.
Reading the script, I was struck by a statement by one of the characters who had been accused of murder. One of the clues was a glove. To defend himself against the charge, the man said he had not had gloves for years –– that he couldn’t afford them. This seemed astonishing to me – to be so poor even as an upholsterer in NYC that you couldn’t afford gloves – which cost maybe 50¢ a pair (a dress was a $1 and shoes $3.50).
It was bad. Breadlines that had shortened considerably were back in full swing in 1937. The government had gotten too confident that they had cured the depression –– they were wrong. The recovery was still far too weak to stand on its own just yet.
Charities did what they could but there just wasn’t enough to go around and people fell through the cracks. Hunger was pervasive. Social security began in 1935 to help the elderly poor and disabled, food stamps were to follow in 1939. Progress was slow.
During the Depression, men who had been professionals were selling apples for money to feed their families. Selling what they had to stay afloat wasn’t much of an option –– no one had money to buy jewelry, furniture and fur coats. If you lived in the country you were often a bit better off because you could barter with what you grew. Many country people rarely used money.
A favorite expression of the period, borrowed from frugal New Englanders was:
Eat it up
Wear it out
Make it do
Or do without.
Just think of it. Apples were less than 5¢ a pound, bacon was 13¢ a pound, coffee 32¢, hamburger 10¢ and rice 15¢ for 5 pounds, eggs 15¢ a dozen and bread 5¢ –– still, people couldn’t feed themselves or their families (the average yearly wage for those who could find work was only $1780 a year or about $34 a week). People ate a lot of potatoes –– they went a long way to quiet hungry stomachs at only 1¢ a pound.
People had to be smart to eat decently with so little to spend. To do it, they ate weeds like dandelions and lambs quarters, and trapped rabbits and squirrels for meat in the country and suburbs. City dwellers weren’t so lucky. Charity or theft were often the only ways to get a meal.
Nothing was wasted. Bread was soaked in water when it was stale and made into porridge. Meat was expensive –– often used just for flavoring rather than as a main course. Hotdogs were terribly popular because they were cheap –– cut up with the ubiquitous potato and onions they made a fine substantial meal. Pasta filled an empty stomach admirably. When combined with peas or beans it provided a filling meal. Cheese and tomato sauce would have been a luxury addition –– chipped beef would have been a special treat.
On top of the nightmare of America’s financial depression, there was an extreme drought in the west beginning in 1931 and farmers lost everything from planting and grazing too heavily on grassland that was never meant to be cultivated like land in the east with a dozen feet of top soil. In April 1935 a dust storm covered Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, the Dakotas and Nebraska –– it was so bad it was called "Black Sunday". "Black blizzards" traveled as far as Maine – dust so thick that rabbits suffocated and birds dropped from the sky. Many people died or were forced from their land in a migration of misery – think Grapes of Wrath. The drought finally broke in 1939.
This was running through my brain as I read the NYT’s food section, caught up on my favorite food blogs and went to Union Square market for the first time in weeks.
What incredible choices I have. It's a crime what I take for granted.
I read dozens of accounts of getting through the depression, many from a series of books Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930's that a woman named Janet Van Amber Paske put together over many years –– I think there are 5 volumes in the series. What I took away from it is that some people struggled horribly and others sort of rose above poverty with ingenuity and a positive attitude, admittedly easier in the country than in the city where foraging was not an option. I guess humble ingredients can be made into fine meals with skill.
I don’t know that I would have been very happy were I to be cooking without funds in 1937. I think I would have a hard time cooking unseasoned meals. When I tried to do the food stamp challenge a few years ago, I was terribly aware of what would have to go –– pretty much all the things I love. No spices or wine –– even pepper and lemon would be off the menu because it would be far too expensive. Every penny had to count.
Reading about the food of the Depression revealed something else too –– I saw the reason why many older people enjoy bland foods. Between the Depression and WWII, they became used to un-adulterated simple food (holds true in the UK as well). It accounts for the blandness you find in many of the recipes of the time. It became “American” to eat simply. This was reinforced during WWII when it was patriotic to cut back.
Now I know you must be asking yourself, with a lead up like that what would I be making that would be tasty not pasty?
I've had a book I've been wanting to cook from for years. It was my grandmother's and a rather lovely piece of work with lovely tabs on good paper and a striking 3-d cover. The original came out in 1937 –– the year of my show.
I looked through it to find something that sounded interesting and came upon a shrimp macaroni salad with a boiled dressing. I had always wondered about boiled dressing. It sounded perverse for a salad dressing but I wanted to try it just once. The cabbage and pickles sounded like fun with macaroni -- a proto-pasta salad to be sure. It was simple and delicious. The boiled dressing is sort of a combination of mayonnaise and hollandaise with a sweet and sour tang and very good. I thought I would include a little depression-era decor from the show, with Roosevelt's favorite Scottie hand-embroidered on the table cloth. I would say if you were short of cash, the cabbage and pasta with the dressing would be delicious on its own.
1 c shrimp
6 sweet pickles [these are tiny cucumber size in the book so maybe 12 sweet pickle slices?]
boiled salad dressing*
salt and pepper
1 c shredded cabbage
1 c macaroni
Remove black line from shrimp. Cut shrimp in medium pieces. Break macaroni in 2" lengths [obviously a step we don't need to take anymore]. Cover with boiling salted water [I would put the shrimp in the boiling water for a few moments until pink and remove, then add the pasta so the shrimp won't be cooked to death]. Cook until tender, Drain. Rinse with cold water. Drain. Combine shrimp, macaroni, cabbage, and pickle. Moisten with salad dressing Season to taste. Mix lightly with 2 forks. Garnish with paprika, Serve on crisp lettuce.
2 t sugar
1 t salt
1 t mustard
2 T flour
3/4 c water
1 egg, well beaten
2 T melted butter
1/4 c mild vinegar
few grains cayenne
2 T to 1/4 c whipped cream
Combine dry ingredients. Mix well with egg. Add butter, vinegar and water. Mix thoroughly. Cook over hot water, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth [put through a sieve]. Cool. Thin with whipped cream or whipped evaporated milk before serving. If desired, more sugar may be added or honey may be substituted for sugar.