Learning from hard times: What previous generations can teach us in the kitchen

By Robin Watson
Special to The Detroit News

American food writer M.F.K. Fisher was right. Sooner or later, there’s a wolf at the door.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it scratching there now.

In her 1942 book, "How to Cook a Wolf," Fisher set down survival strategies for cooks coping with tough times. While the COVID-19 crisis is unique, our times share some common elements with many 20th-century upheavals: fluctuating supplies, access issues, and rising unemployment. The wolf takes many forms.

Eggless, Milkless and Butterless Cake from 1918.

“I see parallels with other periods of scarcity,” says Dr. Helen Zoe Veit, associate professor of history at Michigan State University. Veit was a lead on MSU’s “What America Ate” project (, which focuses on Depression-era eating. “Today, there’s no actual food shortage, but, because of strange conditions, there are shortages of certain things. We have this sense that we’re ‘making do’ during hard times.”

Meeting today’s challenges requires creativity and a broadened perspective. Embracing the foodways and practicality of the past can help.

“Decisions change in times of crisis,” says Brooklyn, New York-based Andrew Coe who, with his wife, Jane Ziegelman, authored "A Square Meal: A History of the Great Depression." “People need something that will satisfy and fill them up.”

The at-home stretch

Throughout the Depression, wars and various recessions, home cooks stretched food. Casseroles, loaves (meat, ham, spam, fish) made the most of what they had. Hardly haute, such dishes were at least hot, filling and comforting.

Given a well-stocked spice cupboard and an ecclectic assortment of staples, formerly ho-hum hot dishes can become delicious global go-tos.

Swap things out

“Depression-era home economists recommended substitutions,” Coe says.

Rye, barley, potato, corn or rice flour served the purpose when the white stuff disappeared. Home cooks reconstituted dried eggs, powdered milk and cheese powder. Honey, maple syrup, sorghum and fruit-juice reductions subbed for sugar and sweetened the pot.

Mock foods, such as Mock Duck, Mock Goose, Mock Apple Pie, etc. — not a one of them containing duck, goose or apples — were wildly popular and actually delicious. Plus, they made for conversation pieces cheerier than stock-market recaps.

Today’s clever hacks don’t have to mock anything. Give beef dishes a vegan makeover. Substitute lean, flavorful (though tougher) value cuts of meat for expensive ones and slow braise or tenderize them in with your InstantPot. No pasta? Spiralize veggies into zoodles that comfort while things spiral out of control.

Use the old bean

“In this country, beans have a reputation as an emergency food,” Ziegelman notes. “They’re shelf-stable, nutritious and filling. People ate beans during World War I as a protein replacement.”

Dried beans offer maximum economy. Cook a batch and refrigerate some for use in soups, stews, tacos and salads — or as refrieds and toast toppers. Reserve bean-cooking liquid to flavor future dishes. Rinse canned beans to remove excess sodium.

Finders, eaters

Foraging supplemented many Depression-era and wartime diets.

“My husband and his sisters would take a picnic lunch and go pick wild blueberries and raspberries all day, then cook supper over a campfire, all the time watching for bears — because bears loved berries too,” says Ypsilanti resident Sherry Sundling of her spouse’s childhood World War II foraging excursions off the Soo line in northern Michigan. “The family spent the evening cleaning berries and the night taking turns staying up to keep the fire burning brightly … for warmth and to ward off bears and wolves.”

Consult online foraging resources to learn what’s safe to eat and what’s not.

Canned help

“It was fashionable during the Great Depression to use shelf-stable foods,” Veit notes. “And people valued canned items because they couldn’t get to the store as often. There’s been a stigma about them in recent years, but they’re on people’s radar now.”

Be mindful

Depression-era and wartime cooks were actual bean-counters. They guarded every resource because their lives depended it.

“It’s a matter of creating a consciousness of the finiteness of food — something that many Americans haven’t had to deal with,” Veit says.

“My family went without eggs for a few days,” says Zeigelman, whose husband shops for their household, which includes a couple of sons with hearty appetites. “So instead of using them thoughtlessly, I was conscious of ‘rationing’ the eggs because I didn’t know when we’d get more. As it was, when my husband and I would wake up in the morning, a lot of stuff would already be gone. We had a family meeting with the boys to say, ‘The way you two keep eating, you’re putting your dad at risk.’”

Waste nothing

Home cooks of the past abhorred waste and used everything. Organ meats (aka offal) as well as meaty neck bones, cheeks, tongue, trotters, tails, backs, snouts and even tails made their way to the table in one form or another.

That’s a sensibility already embraced by sustainably minded home cooks and chefs passionate about nose-to-tail and root-to-stem cooking. Make bone broth from piles of carcasses. Simmer soup stock from bones and veg trimmings. Grind up veg stems to add flavor and color to practically anything.

Preserve food

“During the Depression,” Coe notes. “Mobile canning stations went from town to town teaching people how to can.”

You, too, can preserve. Make any trip to the store count. “Put up” fresh meat and vegetables that are often more available than canned goods, pasta or frozen prepared foods by canning, freezing, smoking and drying them. Batch cook and freeze future meals.

Learn how via online tutorials and resources from cooperative extension services, newspapers, magazines and books, and the adjacent freezing story.

Grow your own

Depression-era “subsistence gardens” and World Way II-era “victory gardens” kept people fed. Neighbors pooled resources from their gardens to create communal vats of soup and stews, or contributed to massive town meals.

Consider growing some of your own food, even if it’s only in a collection of patio pots.

“One of the great unknowns with unemployment rising sharply now is how we will feed all those people who don’t have jobs,” Coe says. “To current eyes, some of the foods recommended in the 1930s by a group of nutritionists who were the great guiders of the American public look ridiculous. But it’s important to know how to feed people on a budget in a healthy manner.”

Woolton Pie

A staple of World War II rationed Britain, this pie can be adapted according to whatever veg is available. Frozen veg can work, too. Just reduce the initial cooking time

Woolton PIe

Yield: 1 10-inch pie, with some leftover filling, or 2 9-inch pies

¼ cup   chicken stock, beef stock or water

1 cube  bouillon (beef, chicken or vegetable)

1 pound  rutabaga, diced

1 pound potatoes, diced

1 pound  carrots, diced

1 pound cauliflower, diced

3 to 4  green onions  

1 teaspoon dried parsley

¼ teaspoon dried sage

¼ teaspoon  mustard seeds

¼ teaspoon dried coriander

To taste salt

To taste ground black pepper

2 tablespoons old-fashioned oatmeal, finely minced

1 9-inch deep dish pie shell (store-bought is fine, or use your favorite pastry-crust recipe)  

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon water

Velvet Cheese Sauce (See recipe)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the stock  or water in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the bouillon cube, rutabaga, carrots and potatoes and allow to cook for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the rutabaga is tender. Add the cauliflower, green onions and seasonings. Stir to combine and cook until all the vegetables are tender, approximately 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking. Add the minced oatmeal, stir and simmer for about another 5 minutes, or until the oatmeal has absorbed the liquid, stirring again to prevent sticking. Transfer the mixture to a pie dish and press down to compress the vegetables. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. Top with the pie crust (a 9-inch pie crust will work as a topper, even if you’re using a 10-inch pie dish). Prepare an egg wash with the egg yolk and water, and then brush the crust with it. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes before serving. Serve with with Velvet Cheese sauce or hot gravy.

Velvet Cheese Sauce

½ cup sour cream or yogurt (Greek, preferred)

¼ cup aïoli or mayonnaise

½ cup grated cheese

2 tablespoons cream, half and half, or whole milk

Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and warm over medium-low heat, stirring until fully blended.

Eggless, Milkless and Butterless Cake

Adapted from "War Breads Recipes," by Dr. D. Jayne and Son, 1918

A cake from another time of war and another pandemic — the Spanish Flu.

1 cup   brown sugar

1 ¼ cups   water

1 cup seedless raisins

2 ounces  citron,  finely chopped

1/3 cup   shortening

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon    cinnamon

1 cup    corn flour, sifted

1 cup  rye flour, sifted

5 teaspoons   baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Line a 9-inch baking pan with parchment paper. Boil the sugar, water, fruit, shortening and spices together in a saucepan for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Add the flours, baking powder and salt. Mix together well. Scrape batter into a 9-inch cake pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with whipped cream, a scoop of ice cream or a dusting of powdered sugar.

Two-Bean Toast

Recipe from Robin Watson. 

Two Bean Toast

Slather a toasted slice of hearty bread with pimiento or other cheese spread and top with black beans and pinto beans tossed with barbecue sauce. Sprinkle Spanish smoked paprika over all for additional color and flavor.

Sludge, or How To Keep Alive

Adapted from "How to Cook a Wolf," by M.F.K. Fisher

1 bunch carrots, ground

2  onions, ground           

Some celery, ground

1 small head cabbage, ground

With leftover cash:  zucchini, tomatoes, beans, garlic

15 cents (in 1942 money) worth of ground beef

10 cents worth of  whole-grain cereal, ground


Put the vegetables in a kettle. Break up the meat and add to the vegetables. Cover with too much water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 1 hour. Add the ground cereal. Mix thoroughly and cook slowly for 2 hours or more. Let cool and refrigerate or keep in a cool place. Eat it cold or reheated. Sludge can be sliced and fried like scrapple, but of course that takes it into the luxury class what with the fat you’d need and the fire.