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Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen

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Not too long ago, I was on the receiving end of some buzz around the net indicating that there was an overabundance of web sites that focused on the “food” aspect of survival and prepping.  You know:  the beans, the rice, the wheat and the other low cost, long shelf life products that make up the core of most family’s emergency survival pantry.  The gist of the buzz was “how boring”. Here at Backdoor Survival the hackles went up.  After all, along with air and water, food is an essential component to life itself.  Without food we die. Depression Cooking Visit to Clara’s Kitchen | Backdoor Survival Today I want to tell you unequivocally that Backdoor Survival is not going to give up on the research and discussion of food products for health and survival.  Quite the contrary.  We are going to continue to delve into the study of various food items in order to learn how to eat better and to sustain ourselves when the budget is meager, the pantry cupboard is bare and the usual food sources no longer exist.  And what better way to start than to talk about depression cooking? Imagine this:
  • True unemployment is in the 20% range and there are no jobs
  • Droughts have resulted in poor crop yields
  • Seed production is greatly reduced due to hybridization and the failure of such seeds to accurately reproduce themselves
  • Meat and vegetable supplies are plagued with e-coli and other diseases
  • Food banks that in the past would serve 300 families a week are now serving 1000 families a week and most are out of food by mid-week
Perhaps you don’t even have to imagine these things for there is much fact laced into this so-called imaginary listing.  The point being that if times are bad – really bad – food or the money to buy food – will be scarce.  And other than stockpiling for such times, the very best way to get by in thin times is to get by with less.  Trite as it sounds, that means make do with what you have and, well, to simply manage. With this in mind, I set out to learn about depression cooking,  By that I mean learning how resourceful, but food-poor families cooked delicious meals when there was very little in the way of ingredients to choose from.  This was the situation during the great depression of the 30s and could quite possibly be our situation in the future. Surprisingly, this was not an easy task.  I did not have a grandmother or elderly aunt to ask and I could find a dearth of books in the subject.  Until I met Clara, that is.

Welcome to Clara’s Kitchen

Quite by accident, I stumbled upon “Cooking With Clara”.  Clara is a ninety-something dynamo that lived through the depression and upon the encouragement of her grandson, became a celebrity chef so to speak on You Tube.  I would like to introduce you to her by way of one of her videos:
As you can see, Clara’s pasta with peas is a very clear example of the simplicity and frugality of depression-era meals. In this case, the meal consists of a simple stew of potatoes, onions, canned peas and a bit of tomato sauce.  These ingredients plus some salt and pepper, are cooked together with pasta, providing plenty of nutrients for an incredibly cheap price.  Did you catch the tip about saving money by turning off the heat and letting the pasta finish cooking from its own heat? After watching a number of her videos, I decided that I wanted to learn more.  I wanted to learn some of the tricks families used to feed hungry mouths when all that was available was some bread, some olive oil and some salt (and yes, you can make a meal out of those few ingredients).  All of this and more can be found in the book Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression.  And what a delight this is! While reading this little book, I learned how to stretch what is available (such as mixing a handful of lentils with pasta), how to conserve, and how to get by food-wise in a potential SHTF economic situation.  I learned how Clara and her family both survived and thrived; not only with love and a common bond to help each other out but with common sense and practical household tactics that are still useful today. Not surprisingly, Clara’s father’s garden was the cornerstone of the family’s food supply and nothing was wasted.  Leftovers were re-purposed at another meal and excess from the garden was canned. The recipes she describes and shares in the book are mostly very simple–Dandelion Salad, Eggs and Potatoes, Pasta with Beans, Pasta with Broccoli, Pasta with Peas – well, you get the drift. Because of her heritage most of her dishes stem from traditional Italian cooking, with lots of pasta, greens, and eggplant, supplemented with eggs, potatoes and tomato sauce. Meat is used more as a condiment and even then, mostly for special occasion dishes or for meals on Sunday after church. Even though these are simple peasant-type foods, Clara somehow makes all of these things seem utterly delicious.


The Final Word

Beyond the recipes, this small book is full of memories, photos, and recipes from the 1920s and 30s.  It is a peek into a slice of time when the economy was in the dump and people struggled to simply get through the hard times, one day at a time.  It is about hardship as much as it is about love and about strength.  And of course, it is about the food and about cooking techniques required by the era and the times. I would like to recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to get by, and more specifically, how to eat well with less.  Pick a recipe or two and give them a try.  See if you like the results and adapt if need be.  The time to learn is now, while we still have choices and luxury of time.  Whereas we may never have to make a satisfying meal out of old, hardened bread and olive oil, wouldn’t it be nice to know you could – just in case? Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation! Gaye If you have not done so already, please be sure to like Facebook which is updated every time there is an awesome new article, news byte, or link to a free survival, prepping or homesteading book.  You can also follow Backdoor Survival on Pinterest. In addition, when you sign up to receive email updates you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-book The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide. Spotlight Item:  Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression:  Recommended not only for the recipes, but for the heartwarming anecdotes that fondly recall memories of life when all you could count on was yourself and strength of the family unit. Survival is all about learning to fend for yourself. Growing your own food, cooking and building stuff are all essential. Here are some of the top sellers from Backdoor Survival readers. Lodge Logic 12-Inch Pre-Seasoned Skillet: My readers love cast iron and so do I. Also at the top were Lodge Set of 2 Pan Scrapers and the Lodge Max Temp Handle Mitt. Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking: At an average cost of 50 cents a loaf, this bread is easy, delicious and inexpensive to make. Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day: 100 New Recipes Featuring Whole Grains, Fruits, Vegetables, and Gluten-Free Ingredients: Ditto. How to Live on Wheat: Everything you need to know about wheat. Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): Fiskars 7855 8-Inch Hatchet: The Fiskars products are easily sharpened and will last a lifetime. Oh, and while you are at it, you might also like the Fiskars Axe & Knife Sharpener . Kaito Voyager KA500 Solar/Crank Emergency AM/FM/SW NOAA Weather Radio: A lot of different hand crank radios were sold but this was by far, the most popular. Sabre Compact Pepper Spray with Quick Release Key Ring: The portability of this pepper spray adds to its appeal since it can be easily carried on a key ring or in a handbag or backpack. The Prepper’s Pocket Guide: 101 Easy Things You Can Do to Ready Your Home for a Disaster: Written by Bernie Carr at the Apartment Prepper blog, this is highly readable guide to all things preparedness. Rothco 550lb. Type III Nylon Paracord: As far as I am concerned, paracord ranks up there with duct tape and zip ties. I wish I had know about this stuff years ago.


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24 Responses to “Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen”

  1. “Today I want to tell you unequivocally that Backdoor Survival is not going to give up on the research and discussion of food products for health and survival. ”

    I say, GOOD for you!

    Hi Gaye,

    Cooking on a budget and making due with what you have are the norm in our house. Any tips to help stretch a dollar are welcome and appreciated. Since I was laid off 4 months ago we have begun using our food stores. I find it very helpful when you give creative ideas.

    I make pan bread or fry bread to add some filler once I a while. Not much more than flour, water, some seasoning and baking powder(if I have any). Pretty bland, but it helps fill the empty spot for a little bit.
    And bulking up a soup or stew with dumplings helps, too.
    I also go 50/50 with ground beef and oats for meatloaf. The oats soak up the juices from the meat so it gets a lot of flavor and stays moist.

    Thank you for what you do.

  2. Hi Gaye,
    First of all I look forward to your blog every morning. It is the first thing I open up everyday. I would be terribly disappointed if one day I open up my email and you aren’t there, so please realize you are important to many many on line. I also think that most blogs are written by men and so therefore come from a different level.

    I will buy this little book today because I think it is important and we can learn something from it.
    I also like that you put your bargain bin. I am buying from there as well.

    None of us want anything bad to happen but we would be negligent if we didn’t prepare. It is a shame that we must feel that we must prep but that is the way of the world.

    There is a place for you to be and you are doing it now. As I said before if you need ideas or help with your blog don’t hesitate to ask.

    • @Carole – Thank you so much for your kind words. I do have moments from time to time when I wonder if all of the time I spend writing about my prepping experience is worth it. Then I get a comment like yours and I feel refreshed in the knowledge that I am, indeed, touching lives.

      I will be in touch via email 🙂

      — Gaye

  3. something about the (last) depression i never understood: all the pix with long “bread lines”–they were only men!
    where were the women and children, and where did their food come from? not from soup kitchens, apparently. not an urgent question, it’s just something that bugs me.

    • teabag, for the most part, any of those breadlines could likely erupt into fighting for food. I was told women and children stayed home to protect them. I suspect it also gave the men a boost to their egos that they could still bring home bread if nothing else.
      @Gaye, I learned much from my grandmothers and my mom but even so, thanks for posting because reminders can help and possible teach me something new. Then the tip is to do what you are doing and pass it along. 🙂

    • dee, thanks so much for the info. i never thought about the bread lines being dangerous! the men in the pictures always looked so defeated, i guess….but of course they must have been angry, not to mention desperate. makes sense.

    • Teabag
      Yes the women and Children stayed home or if what my mother remembered is correct that on a certain day the widows with children could come and stand in line with out fear of being attacked or hurt if things got out of hand

  4. Just for fun I prepared Clara’s recipe as shown on the video. I used lentils instead peas and must say that it tasted pretty good, the addition of Ketchup helps though!


  5. Great blog SW!!! I read and enjoy everything you write. Here is my contribution to depression era cooking that comes from my mother who lived during the great depression. I still love this one;

    – boil until tender then drain as much elbow macaroni as you think your family can eat
    – dice up that stale bread and brown it in a cast iron skillet using bacon fat, Crisco, or whatever
    – pour the macaroni into the skillet and stir with the fried bread and serve hot. Yummy !!!

  6. Gaye,
    I agree, you are Far!!! From boring. Yes, so there are dozens
    Of sites, blogs out there. But I know you and, if those out there
    Saying that, well, they are impatient. I like to get info from all perspectives.
    And, as we all know, learn as you go, so maybe they’ll miss out on
    Things you have, or will post. Because I live on a fixed budget, I try to
    Learn how-to’s with less. In the end there will always be something we missed,
    or no funds available to finish a goal, that’s where barter will come to play.
    By the way, anxious to hear more about the radios from yesterday’s post.
    And your recipe for coffee kahlua, I made back in October is pretty tasty. Thanks
    for sharing. Keep doing what you do, we’re behind you 1000%

  7. First of all, I must echo Carolyn’s comments: Keep up the great work, Survivor Woman! Your posts are common sense filled and loaded with good information.

    Last week I learned that my government contracting job of the past 7 years will not be renewed after the 3rd of February. Not to worry though: I have a bit of savings and a couple years of stored food sources, if needed. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that, but if necessary it’s quite comforting to know that food and water is available for the entire immediate family for the foreseeable future.

    Having grown up in the backwoods of Louisiana, I consider myself fortunate to having been exposed to a lot of different ways to hunt and gather, to preserve and prepare, and to stretch food of all types to levels that will fill and satisfy anyone with a hungry belly.

    I believe we can all learn something positive from people like Clara. She’s obviously been there, done that, and lived to talk about it to a generation who, for the most part has little or no clue about long-term survival skills–as those skills pertain to food preservation and preparation.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. First off, you just keep doing what you’ve been doing, don’t listen to the naysayers. You have created an amazing blog. They’re singing with sour grapes, never mind them.
    Secondly, this entry was well timed and well done. It is never too late, or early to learn about stretching one’s food. I’ll have to give pasta and peas a shot. One of my favorite meals is simple chicken and rice. Cooked chicken parts, whatever you have on hand, in broth, spiced to taste, rice and biscuits. Sometimes, we don’t feel like making biscuits, so we’ll take hot dog or hamburger buns, butter them and put them under a broiler. It’s simple and satisfies the soul.
    I look forward to your food posts.
    Keep up your awesomness!

    • Hey Carolyn do you have chickens ? Do you know how to raise them for meat or eggs ? Do you grow pea’s ? Do you store real flour ? Do you know how to bake over an open fire ? or a fireplace ? if not you are screwed TC my friend ,,,I do all the above

    • Carolyn, you may enjoy “Backwoods Home magazine”. It tells all about how to live very simple and it’s alot of fun to read every month. They talk about raising chickens and all types of farm animals as well as how to cook and take care of them.

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