Now I understand!

I recently read a book about the Great Depression. It was put together by people who actually lived through it so many of them are gone by now. The people who wrote the selections did not seem as sad as I imagined they would. The book was more about how they survived the depression. They were proud of the sacrifices they made and the strength that resonated from them.

After reading through the section about food and eating during that time, I better understand some of what my grandmother did throughout the years. She was the mother of three children at the time so there were five mouths to feed. She was proud of the fact that they managed to maintain their home throughout the depression. I heard her tell often about how hard it was when her sister and brother-in-law lost their home because they could not keep up the payments. They never did recover enough to buy another home.

I grew up in my grandparents’ home. When my father walked out on us my mother was forced to give up the apartment and move back in with her parents. I was just two years old and needed someone to care for me. That someone was grandma.

Although I did not grow up during the depression I realize now how great an influence the depression had on my grandparents. Often I share with the grandchildren about what my life was like. I did not think about hardships. That was just the way things were when I was growing up.

After reading stories by men and women who went through the depression I realize how much it influenced grandma’s cooking and meal planning. When grandma cooked there were seldom any leftovers. She cooked just what our family needed to eat for the day.

We ate our lighter meals at noon since grandfather was lucky enough to have a job. Since he was a delivery man for a furniture store he brought the store truck home for lunch. My mother walked to work so she did not come home for lunch. By evening my grandfather had to walk home. I do not remember having a car until I was in school.

Our big meal was in the evening when everyone was done with work. Grandma knew how long it would take them to get home so she planned accordingly. If we were having meat there was a piece for each of us. It was not a whole chicken breast or a steak but it was a piece. The potatoes were boiled. Again there were just enough for us to eat with no leftovers.

Dessert, if we had some was apt to be a piece of fruit. It was not, however, a whole piece of fruit. If grandma cut the piece of fruit it went further. Grandma could make two bananas feed four of us. She cut the bananas into pieces, added a little sugar, then some milk. It was the same with apples. Grandma cut the apples and added cinnamon sugar to make them go further.

If grandma made stew or soup there were plenty of vegetables and just a little meat. Grandpa had a good garden and we got our vegetables from that during the summer months. She canned tomatoes so we had those all winter. When I think about how people eat today it is no wonder we are overweight! We were small eaters, but we did not think much about it. There was always enough to go around.

Grandma had a good pantry so there were basic ingredients on hand to bake things. We did have sweets at least part of the time. The cookies were always homemade – never store bought. The same went for cakes. She knew if she baked her cake in a cookie sheet with sides that it would go further. The goal was always to maximize what we had without making it noticeable.

There were recipes without eggs or with very little sugar. Cooks learned to substitute for whatever they did not have.

We went out to the farms to get fresh produce. We had one place to get peaches and another for apples. We picked our own fruit because it was cheaper that way. When the fruit was fresh my grandfather would send me to the cellar to get a piece for a snack during the evening. That was the only time we had a snack after supper. Grandpa would cut the piece of fruit into small slices and share it.

Our family did not eat much pasta, but I had a friend who had pasta for nearly all of her meals. For us pasta was a treat, but for her it was common fare. Of course, at noon we filled up with sandwiches. The bread filled you up so you did not have to have a lot of filling. We did not eat cold cuts. We had things like ham, chicken, or meatloaf that we saved from a previous meal. If she planned on making sandwiches grandma made sure there were leftovers.

She also made egg salad. That allowed hard boiled eggs to go further. My grandfather and I like tuna fish. I am sure those cans in the old days contained more than they do today although the cans do not look much different.

Once in a while we used canned soup to go with our sandwiches. One can of soup fed four people. If I was dishing it up I knew how big the portions had to be.

There was never more than one bowl of cereal for breakfast, either. You poured cereal into your bowl, ate it, and that was breakfast. Usually I had hot chocolate with a slice of toast. I was not much of a cereal eater anyway. Grandma cooked oatmeal or cream of wheat for herself. Her stomach did not tolerate the cold cereals very well.

All of these things were simply part of my life. I did not realize that I was eating the way I was because of my grandmother’s depression era background. I have maintained some of the habits I picked up at home but not all of them. I prefer a whole banana or a whole apple, thank you.

Ann Swanson writes from her home in Russell, PA. Contact her at