Depression Cooking

Meet Clara. She’s a 93 year old great grandmother. She’s also the host of one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen on the internet.

Clara was a young woman during the years of the Great Depression. During those years, she learned a lot of survival skills – among them was the ability to create a tasty meal for the absolute minimum cost.

Today, Clara’s a spry ninety three year old who is still able to get around in her kitchen and is also a good storyteller, so she’s sharing her stories and her Depression-era recipes on YouTube.

Part of the reason that I liked these videos so much is that in some ways, Clara reminded me a lot of my own great grandmother, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 89. I miss her every day, still – she was an amazing woman with a nice touch in the kitchen and a good story always on her lips.

Not only are Clare’s recipes well worth trying, Clara’s stories and her humble mannerisms make this series come together into something special. There are currently ten videos in her YouTube channel – below, I chose four of them to highlight. I strongly encourage you to watch them all if you find the ones below even half as interesting as I did.

Clara’s pasta with peas is a very clear example of the simplicity of these Depression-era meals. It simply consists of a simple stew (just water and milk as the liquid backbone) of potatoes, onions, peas, and a bit of tomato sauce (with some salt and pepper) cooked together with pasta, providing you plenty of nutrients – and it’s incredibly cheap. Her tip about saving energy (and money) by simply turning off the heat and letting the pasta finish cooking from its own heat is excellent, too. The highlight, though, was Clara’s tale about Depression-era bootleggers hiding illegal liquor in the garage of her neighbors.

Clara’s depression breakfast is actually more of a snack, as it consists of very simple sugar cookies (flour, eggs, and sugar) which you can dip in coffee, which she demonstrates how to make in a Depression-era coffee pot. She also goes through a bunch of old photographs and tells a number of wonderful stories about her family and friends, providing visual glimpses into the Depression and pre-Depression eras.

Clara’s peppers and eggs is actually an incredible breakfast, one that I’ve come to enjoy. It’s about as simple as it sounds – she’d just take bell peppers (saving the seeds for next year, of course) and slice them, then cook them along with scrambled eggs with some toast on the side. She also tells tales of how people swapped food (especially in schools) and the prevalence of home canning and basic farming (chickens, for one) during the Depression. This video actually has a second part, where Clara makes a very simple homemade bread from flour, water, and yeast.

Clara’s poorman’s feast consists of lentils, rice or pasta, salad, and inexpensive cuts of meat – steaks that were cut very thin to make them stretch. She tenderizes the meat by soaking it in lemon juice and olive oil and fries it and simply boils the lentils and rice together to make a healthy backbone. For the salad, she recommends fresh endive and drenches it with olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, and lemon juice.

Thank you so much, Clara, for sharing these videos with the world on YouTube. If you liked these videos, be sure to check out Clara’s other videos including Sicilian fig cookies and egg drop soup among other foods – they’re timeless and have provided me with hours of entertainment (and cooking).

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  1. kit says:

    I LOVE Mrs. Clara! The videos are a wonderful rebuttal to TV cooking shows, Rachel Ray, etc. since she’s making food from real ingredients that’s non-threatening to a beginner cook.

    I had caught the tip about letting the pasta cook in the hot water with the heat off – what a great, simple idea! Why do we no longer think of these things?

  2. These are some good ideas. I especially like the peppers and eggs. I’ve been looking for a way to get Orange and Yellow bell peppers into my diet, I think I may have found an answer.

    -Nate

  3. Kevin says:

    Thanks for sharing this with your readers. I posted my wife’s family’s recipe for Pasta and Peas a few months ago, and when I stumbled upon the videos of Clara her grandson had posted to YouTube, I actually added her version (via the video) to my post. She is most charming and the recipes are simple and wonderful.

  4. Jolyn says:

    Great post. Clara reminds me of my own grandmother who was also a spunky, no-nonsense kind of woman. There is much to be learned from people like her.

  5. Judith says:

    I love this blogpost and those videos! Will definitely try some of these. Really makes you think that with all our probiotic yogurt, organic granola and romaine/spinach mixes in bags, if we are not missing the point.

    Also, I’ve noticed, we probably eat so much more meat than people had in the Depression era. And yet, they seem to be so strong.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  6. Joe says:

    My Italian grandmother and aunt, both 95 and 93 respectively, cooked some of these very same receipes and many more, not just because they were
    healthy and inexpensive to prepare, but also the taste would knock your socks off! Some of the foods that today people think are gourmet were “peasant foods” in the old days that were eaten because they were cheap. Everybody should especially try the a peppers and egg sandwich, its fantastic… Nice post, I can’t wait to see these videos!

  7. Michele says:

    She is too cute! And I guess you can say that may be a benefit of the current “recession” – maybe we’ll be telling our grandchildren of how we lived lean during those hard days of 2008-2009!

  8. CathyG says:

    Marked the videos to watch later, but I can comment about the red and yellow peppers. My neighborhood has a 99c-Only store (I can’t find the ‘cents’ key on my keyboard!!). Anyway – they sell peppers in a package of 2,3 or 4 for 99 cents a pack. Much cheaper than 1.99 each at the grocery store.

    Three things we do with them –
    1. Cut up raw and put in salads. Adds a crunch and they are very sweet.
    2. Cut up and saute with mushrooms and onions in olive oil. Add to spaghetti sauce and use with either spaghetti or as the base of a chicken parmesan casserole.
    3. use them in a stir-fry with your favorite Chinese-style sauce and other vegetables.

  9. tiphaine says:

    Thanks for sharing this!!
    She really likes salt!!
    LOL
    I just posted something about money concerns, would you, and you fellow readers, tell me what you think about it?
    Am I too simplist?

    http://amphibianfroggie.blogspot.com/2009/03/worst-case-scenario-how-i-deal-with.html

  10. KC says:

    We can learn a lot from Depression era people. A few years ago we were looking for something in my grandmother’s (who is now 90) house. We were going through the closets, attic, basement, etc. The thing that I remember most is that she didn’t have much “stuff” in her closets. This must be how she and my grandfather always bought a new car every 5 years (with cash) and took trip all over the US and world (with cash). They weren’t killing their budget buying “stuff” all the time.

  11. Kara says:

    Years ago I found a number of cook books with recipes from the Depression at our public library. I was hooked and then started looking for the “real” cook books printed during those years. I’ve also gone through my Gma’s (just a bit older than Clara) recipe boxes and I’ve bought some from estate auctions too :)

    Many, many times I look to these cookbooks and recipe cards for inspiration, fun, and a bit of wisdom.

    Wonderful post! I can’t wait to watch Clara.

  12. Larabara says:

    Forget Wolfgang Puck; get this lady on a late-night talk show, or even Oprah!

  13. DrFunZ says:

    Great recipes and she is fun to watch!! Yes, these are the foods I grew up with even though I grew up in the 60’s when money as more plentiful. My mom would make these because that is what she grew up with and she liked these dishes. My grandmother was was dirt poor yet she had to feed her 7 brothers who immigrated to America and her husband and 5 children. In Italian families in the late 1920’s and 30’s, the oldest daughter served her younger single brothers!

    I would add a few other treats: escarole and cannellini beans, chickpeas and pasta, potatoes and hotdogs (sliced very thin), zucchini, onions and eggs cassarole, fried spinach and cheese garlic balls, eggplant parmesan. Most of these are vegetarian, are low on the food chain and are filling.

    =

  14. Rachel says:

    I tried the pasta and peas recipe– my husband loved it! He said it was his new favorite recipe- how cool is that? I will definitely be checking out the rest of the videos!

  15. Char says:

    I love Clara too! I caught her after she appeared on GMA and she is just too adorable – I want her to be my grandma!

  16. Sheri says:

    The cookies look interesting, but I must have missed where she says how long to bake them. Does anybody know how long?

  17. sunny says:

    I spent last Friday evening watching Clara. My own Grandmother died last year at the age of 93 and I miss her everyday. Clara’s tales of the depression brought back lots of warm memories of watching Gram cook and listening to her tell stories about hard times and stretching a dollar.

  18. Blog Buddy says:

    Very cool videos-I’m impressed with her energy:)

  19. JT says:

    She is amazing! I hope I can still be able to dice potatoes and onions at 93! I like her pasta and peas recipe…will try it out. Looks simple but nourishing.

  20. Gabriel says:

    Thanks for pointing her out – I watched her videos and I love them! She’s precious! Thanks to people like Clara, we have a rich and meaningful history to remember. Thanks Clara!

  21. They say, “What’s old is new again!”

    God Bless, this woman!

  22. Demonhawk says:

    Yea I saw this on Digg a few days ago. I watched all the videos I found it pretty interesting.

  23. Isabelle says:

    I love the Clara videos. The food is tasty and easy to make.

    My grandmother, born 1889, was a country girl. She was a fabulous cook, using basic ingredients to create nourishing meals. Guess what her most used basic ingredients? Yes, potatoes and onions!

  24. Evangeline says:

    These are the lessons we should have been learning all along: Do the best you can with what you have and you’ll be okay. All the whining and trying to keep up with the Joneses wouldn’t have gotten us into this mess if we had just had the common sense of this wonderful lady and the people of her generation. Fantastic recipes!

  25. marija says:

    I was born in 1930, and my Yugoslav parents had a wonderful garden with all kinds of greens, corn, and tomatoes, and Mom would trek down to the local A&P and ask for soup bones for her dogs (we didn’t have any pets at that time) and for carrots and beet tops for the neighborhood rabbits (who were very prevalent) so today I enjoy the canned collard and mustard greens from the dollar stores as well as the Mexican food sections for great vegetarian treats.

  26. Bob says:

    Being the cook in my house, I am going to try these recipes though probably when my wife is out since she isn’t big on a lot of the ingredients. Thanks for posting the videos. It’s also good to remember that these people did make it through the rough time, survived because they needed to…. just as we will survive the economic downturn… or recession… whatever history will call this.

  27. Thanks for pointing her out Trent! This is really compelling stuff—she is a total rock star for an old lady.

  28. Anna says:

    I was post-Depression but grew up the same way, because we had practically no money. One of my favorite suppers was dried lima beans (the big white flat kind) soaked and cooked, and then baked with tomatoes and a little onion. Crumbled bacon bits were added if bacon was in the budget. Mmmm….I haven’t had this for a long time; I’m off to obtain some dried limas and bacon!

    About the onion: my late mother would probably be shocked out of her wits if she could see me now, cutting up a WHOLE ONION to make only one dish. She managed onions by buying one at a time, cutting off the base, taking off a slice or two per dish, and saving the rest, cut side down on a plate, for another time.

  29. Stacey says:

    I recently watched all of Clara’s video on Depression cooking. I took a great amount of pleasure in watching them. I learned a lot but also was greatly comforted by her. In these hard time I have been worrying what is going to happen. I questioned if times got harder how will my family survive. Seeing Clara’s talk about her childhood, although admittedly hard, I could see she had a happy childhood. It made me realize that even if times get harder, I will survive and possibly be better off for it. Maybe I’ll have to give up even more than I already have but those are not the important things in life.

  30. Kandace says:

    I love watching Clara and her videos. JD and Get Rich Slowly has featured her, too.

    I’m currently doing a Pantry Challenge, cooking what I have on hand. I haven’t been to the store since Jan. 31 and I’m not planning on going until April 1. I find myself cooking very similarly to Clara right now. It’s been a great experiment and I find her inspiring.

  31. Kandace says:

    I love watching Clara and her videos. JD at Get Rich Slowly has featured her, too.

    I’m currently doing a Pantry Challenge, cooking what I have on hand. I haven’t been to the store since Jan. 31 and I’m not planning on going until April 1. I find myself cooking very similarly to Clara right now. It’s been a great experiment and I find her inspiring.

  32. Wendybird74 says:

    I too saw Clara on GMA, so I watched most of her videos. She is such an inspiration!
    I find myself trying to think more like her when I’m in the kitchen. Using simple ingredients that are inexpesive and plentiful to make a filling meal for my family. I even debated the purchase of a 20lb bag of potatoes yesterday at the store since I have been using them so much since watching her.
    The older people in America are so often forgotten. They tend to get very little recognition from young people..even in their own families, but this shows that they have so much to contribute to our world! Her Great-Grandson obviously appreciates the value she has to add to society.
    I only wish that my grandmother had her health and could tell us about her life when she was a young person.

  33. MK says:

    I can’t wait to get home and check out these recipes. From how you described them they seem so simple, and then from the other comments, seems like they’d be delicious! My DBF is trying to go vegitarian, and it seems like some of these will fit well along those lines. Plus a great way to save some money in the process!!

  34. Anne65 says:

    Great recipes! I always load up on peppers when they are on sale. They are one of the easiest things in the world to freeze:

    http://www.stilltasty.com/fooditems/index/16523

  35. A in NC says:

    This reminds me of the concept of the “greatest generation” those who parented the baby boomers, and how THAT group was pinnacle of success. They had just what they needed plus the skills and knowledge to survive. The next subsequent generations lost so much of that because we had too much.
    Too much of anything is no good. If you have too much money you dont’ have to learn to survive. Learning to survive and the values that come with it are what make people great.
    This time in our culture is a great opportunity for us to re-learn those basics and add to the incredible knowledge we have in this 21st century.
    We don’t have to go back in time, but we did throw the baby out with the bathwater and now we need to bring her back in.
    God love YOUTUBE! and all the knowledge we can now share with our wonderful internet.

  36. Naturally Recommended says:

    She is too cute! Really reminds me of my own grandma in a lot of ways. It’s so interesting to hear the snippets of her talking about life back in that time.

  37. Let me say one thing to the Frugal Food Seeker…

    BEANS, BEANS, BEANS!

    Beans are high in fiber & protein which will help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol & blood pressure, and gain greater overall health & well-being.

    Beans are low in fat and are CHEAP! They are a great meat substitute, not because you don’t like meat…but because it can be too expensive.

    Eat beans!

    DebtFREEk!

  38. Bridget says:

    Thank you so much for putting the link up to those lovely videos. They brought a tear to my eye. What a great lady!

  39. Cobbster says:

    This woman is terrific. Good for her! It’ll be interesting to see some more of her ideas.

  40. Carrick says:

    When I went to Minnesota for the first time a couple years ago, I sampled the cuisine of my Swedish-American heritage and realized that practically every single dish was some combination of flour and water. Fried flour and water, baked flour and water–even flour and water pudding!! I was like, geez, this must have been because of the Depression (or being poor farmers in Sweden…) and couldn’t imagine how awful it must have been to subsist only on that. The meals posted here would make the Depression MUCH more bearable…

  41. Carmen says:

    Aww; her cooking reminds me of my Italian Grandma and Great Grandma. She’s absolutely fantastic for her age; probably all that olive oil for her joints and limited processed food throughout her lifetime.

    But does anyone use that much salt now? I only add salt to chips, the occasional salad and broccoli (on my plate!) since I know it’s not good for kids to have any salt added to foods, such as pasta & veg. Plus I can recall hating the taste as a child.

  42. Erick says:

    She said she is 91 years old. I think you wrote 93. Just thought you should know.

  43. Susan in CA says:

    Thanks so much for the links! I’m enjoying watching Clara. I want to try the recipes.

    Kandace-I’m using up what I have on hand too! I’ve organized the pantry so I know what I have and have the freezer to do now. Doing this can save alot of money.

    I need to improve on making up my menus ahead of time and then having a good list to take to the store.

    Erick, I think the first video of Clara was made two years ago. That is why she says 91 but she is 93 now.

  44. Nienke says:

    I love her videos. The funny thing is that as a student, I ‘invented’ quite a few of her meals myself!

  45. Moneyblogga says:

    I love Clara! She is a big hit all over the web.

  46. katy says:

    I fell in love with Clara – but DON’T make her sugar cookies. I wasted 3 eggs, 3/4 c of sugar and 1 1/2 c flour (oh, she conveniently forgot that recipe needed more). They were INEDIBLE and I had to throw them out.

    Some ‘Sunday breakfast’ indeed.

  47. bel says:

    I fell in love with this lady and her videos. Thank you for posting them. I loved her so much that I went over to youtube and watched the rest. I found her cookie video and almost started to cry. My Grandmother made these cookies for me when I was little. She passed on and I thought I would never find the recipe. Thank you so much!

  48. I love Clara! I’ve watched all of her videos over the last few weeks. I’m sad that there won’t be any more (but I totally get it – she’s old! Don’t push her!). Also, I love the fact that she lives up here in the Finger Lakes – I laugh whenever I see her use one of our local brands. It’s just another thing to connect with, for me.

    It should be pointed out, though, that Clara says she gained weight during the depression. There’s a reason for that: she ate a lot of starch and flour, because it was cheap. Things aren’t so bad in our economy right now that we have to rely on flour and potatoes. Her dishes are good for stretching your dollar, but you should look for ways to make the dishes healthier, if you can afford it. Whole wheat flour, more proteins, more fresh (or frozen) veggies. I lived off of pasta for a semester in school – literally, because it’s what I could afford. It was bad. I don’t recommend it.

  49. Molly says:

    This is fantastic! Thanks for hooking us “Simple Dollar” fans to Clara. Not only are her simple meals great for modern nights of quick cooking for the family, I just love her down-to-earth self and the historicalconnection to that era. Like so many others have said, I miss my mom (who died in 1998 at 81) and Grandma. And as with so many great lessons from Simple Dollar, I’ve passed this on to my young adult sons, who didn’t want to learn to cook from me!

  50. Oh, I want her as my own nonna! Thanks for introducing me to her; I’m spreading the word to my own friends!

  51. Emily says:

    Trent,

    This lady is a jewel and so are you for sharing her! Thanks!

  52. Brittany says:

    Clara is so charming and inspiring! Thank you for sharing this, I hadn’t heard of her until now. It just makes me feel so good remembering all the meals my great grandmother used to make for me. Props to those who make it to such an age and still make great use of their time and energy!

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