Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen

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

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.

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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. I know this article was written a good while back, but it simply cannot be stressed enough that in hard times, we have to make do. We live in a world where people do not take the blemished apple because…ewww. We are spoiled beyond the dreams of our ancestors. It is my belief that we could all use a few lessons in how to live more simplified lives, because one day, we will need to in order to survive. I live very well on a retirement income at under 10K per year. It took a long while before I implemented my Depression era Granny’s way of looking at life. I bought 16 acres, lived in a crap trailer while I paid off the land and saved for a better, more comfortable house. I planted my fruit and nut trees the first year and maintain a 1/4 acre garden that I can from, and raise my own meat- goat, rabbit, hogs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. We fish in our 3 acre pond. It is a pure pleasure to look at the bounty on the table and know that every single thing on it was produced right here on this farm excepting the salt and pepper! Some folks say “That’s great, but I don’t HAVE a farm”. Well, once upon a time, neither did I. I worked and saved and didn’t buy the next best “everything”. I have a 5 buck flip phone. I did w/o satellite TV and Internet for 5 years while we whipped this place into shape. I made do and lived without a LOT in order to get what I have now. You can do the same. Anyway, thank you Gaye. I think you do a marvelous job of informing people. Simple isn’t sexy, but it sure will come in handy. I am grateful as I have learned much from you. I will be buying Clara’s book.

    • Hey that is so true ,I understand the meaning of doing without to get what you want or need.I did a lot of things to get what I want and have.I love the replies that are left here they give you more insight of things and help with the things that need to be remember.Our society has gone to the dogs (nice way of saying it) you look around and a lot of people are living with a big CREDIT DEBT and are just waiting for things to come easy for them.Well I don’t and won’t.I just keep on doing what was proven to work and stick with it.I grow my own garden ,hunt,trap,raise chickens,and support my local butcher and farmer,by buying pigs and beef from them than them big chain stores.My truck is 10 years old,My home was built in 50’s and I bought used and had moved to the farm for me to live in it.I know I feel sorry to see a lot people just struggle to get ahead while taking 2 steps forward and end up going 5 steps back.I do have a little woman help me,She taught me that TRUST the you love goes a long ways.And I grateful to see Clara’s got a book for people to buy & read.My parents and grand parents taught me hoe to do things and I’m grateful for that.Thank GOD. I know everything helps if a person just reads and soaks it up.

  2. I love Clara! She reminds me of my Grandmother. And my Mother. Both ladies lived through the depression, and I’ve eaten many meals on this same order. They used what they had and made a nourishing meal out of it. I find myself coming up with meals out of the panty myself. Maybe a little of those wonderful women has rubbed off on me. I hope so.
    Thank you for posting this video of Clara. I have watched many of her videos on youtube and she is such an inspiration.

  3. Food blogging, boring? What planet are they from?!?

    As mentioned on a FB comment to your blog, not a prepper myself, but I was raised nearby my Depression-surviving, farm-owning grandparents. I can stretch a dollar in the kitchen like you wouldn’t believe, and you will eat it all with a smile. How can anyone fail to see the value in that?

    If it really came to SHTF, and these detractors actually had to eat whatever boring fare they’re stowing away day in and day out, they’ll learn better right quick.

    THANK YOU for introducing us all to Clara.

    • Thanks for joining in, Lillian. Coincidentally, I just started re-reading Clara a few day ago. This is about the 6th time and each time I do, I come away with a renewed interest in eating simply. I will pass, however, on lard sandwiches LOL.

    • Yes, I would pass on lard in sandwich form, too. But I do definitely use it in the old kitchen once in a while! I’m told (by my Southern mom) that it’s the only way to fry chicken, and the best way to make pie crust. Plus sometimes I use it to make “suet” cakes to feed the birds.

  4. Since you stated a while back that you were spending too much time on the blog and were getting tired. I have a suggestion. Why don’t you get a partner with you on your blog. That way both of you could get time off. You could even get weeks off if you wanted to. Just a suggestion. I, and a lot of others would hate to see you get burned out. You have too good of a web site to lose you.
    You always say that part of prepping is enjoying life.

  5. I grew up on “depression cooking” as my dad had lost his job when I was little. one of the meals we used to have was a big bowl of white rice (cooked) with two cans of chicken gumbo soup added, then baked in the oven. Many times that was the only dinner we’d have. Of course there was always milk, butter and cheese. My Dad’s uncle had a herd of milk cows and we could get milk and cheese from him. Mom and Grandma always put up fruits and vegetables we got from both sets of grandparents. Didn’t have any space to grow ourselves but both GP’s had big yards. Yes us grandkids did weed, pick off bugs, etc. for them.

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