Thursday, January 14, 2016

Frugal Cooking

After my last post about pancakes and sausage, I got to thinking about meals when I was growing up.  They were plain meals but even so, we never went hungry.  I think the way we ate had to do with two things.

First, we didn't have a lot of money.  If we were poor, I didn't know it, but now I do know that much of my Dad's income went for medical bills.  My mother suffered with rheumatoid arthritis nearly all of her life, and that disease took its toll, both in the horrible crippling of her body and in the cost of hospital stays, medicines, doctor visits, etc.

The second factor was that both my parents grew up during the Great Depression.  Even though both my grandfathers were among the more fortunate who had jobs at that time - one as a railroad depot agent in a small town and the other as a farmer and logger, it was still tough to feed their families of seven and nine children, respectively.  My parents quickly learned that waste was not to be tolerated.  They lived by the saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."  Both brought their frugal upbringing to their marriage and to raising their family of three children.

As a child, I remember that Sunday was my favorite day of the week as far as dinner went.  Sunday was the day my mother would put a roast or a chicken in the oven before we went to church.  When we came home, she would make potatoes and gravy, a vegetable and maybe a dessert, usually consisting of fruit we had canned in the summer or if we were really lucky, a cake or a pie.

The rest of the week, suppers consisted of dishes that weren't expensive to make, like macaroni and cheese, chili with rice, chicken ala king made with the leftover Sunday chicken and served over biscuits, or beef stew made with the leftover beef roast.  We ate pasta dishes like spaghetti or goulash as well as a variety of pasta or rice based casseroles.  Here in Minnesota, they are called "Hot Dish."

Mother was the Queen of Creamed Anything over Toast.  She would make a standard white sauce using flour, margarine (butter was a special treat as it was expensive, even then) and milk.  To the white sauce she would add salt and pepper and whatever vegetables were ready for picking in the garden.  This was usually peas or a combination of peas and carrots.  My favorite was when the asparagus bed started producing in the spring and she would make creamed asparagus on toast.  Once in a while Dad would splurge and bring home a jar of dried beef and we had creamed chipped beef on toast, better known as s**t on a shingle.

I think we had so many of the creamed vegetables over toast because bread was the one food that was plentiful.  Mother baked loaves of bread, buns and cinnamon rolls.  She taught me the art of bread baking when I was about 10 years old, knowing that it wouldn't be long before the pain from the arthritis would make it impossible for her to do this task.  Dad would buy flour in 50 lb. bags and yeast in bulk.  Bread baking was a weekly happening, usually on Saturdays when I was home from school.  I still like homemade bread better than store bought.

We often ate breakfast for supper.  My parents bought eggs and milk from a local farmer so eggs were plentiful and cheap.  My Dad would make a stack of pancakes and fry up eggs to go with them.  Most times he would heat a jar of homemade jelly until it became a liquid and that was used as syrup.  Sometimes on Monday evenings supper would consist of hash made from Sunday's leftover potatoes and roast beef, heated and topped with an egg for each person.   Other times it might be scrambled eggs with a little grated cheese on top along with thick slices of toast and homemade jam.

When I got to thinking about these meals I ate as a child, I wondered if the Depression Era my parents lived through had anything to do with the way they cooked.  So when I Googled "depression era coooking" I found that many of the meals my parents made were either similar or the same as those they ate when they were children.  I believe they ate better than most during that period of time, for their fathers were able to provide the basics for their families, when many were standing in lines in the cities, waiting for a meal at the soup kitchens that were common then.  My grandparents had large gardens as did my Dad, which was a major factor in feeding their families.  And my Dad's parents on the farm were able to raise animals for meat as well as for eggs, milk, cream and butter.

My Dad found a solution to satisfying his sweet tooth.  He would tear a slice of bread into small pieces and put them in a large water glass.  He would pour hot coffee over the bread and then sprinkle on a bit of sugar.  I asked him once where he learned to make what he called "poor man's pie."  He told me that during both the Depression and during the years of WWII, sugar was either very expensive or it was rationed.  His mother was careful with the amount of sugar she used, so cakes, cookies and pies were a rare treat.  But she would sometimes let her kids make poor man's pie because it took only a small amount of sugar and she knew that sometimes the hard life of farm work could be made a bit easier with a small, sweet treat.

The time is not all that far off when we may experience changes in the way we live.  Grocery stores may not be able to keep their shelves stocked as they do now.  It might do us well to study how the people during that depressed time were able to feed their families, especially those who lived in towns where growing their own meat and vegetables would be a problem.

We could stand to learn the more frugal ways of our parents and grandparents.  We may have to.


  1. Good post, and "amen" on the closing.

  2. Thanks, Gorges...I think our parents and grandparents were much better equipped to handle bad times because unlike many today, they knew how to take care of themselves.

  3. My Dad was born in 1920 and so grew up in the Depression. The only thing he would ever talk about from that time was how they would have 'milk toast' for dinner on Sundays. They would have their main meal after church. Later in the evening, they would get milk toast instead of a normal dinner.I asked him how it was made, he said "Well, you make toast and then put it in a bowl and cover it with milk". And he always ended the story with a chuckle and "I guess as a kid I never knew about the Great Depression". Thanks for your post that let me remember this story. SJ in Vancouver BC Canada

  4. Things we made need to learn. Thank you, Brenda from Tn

  5. Sorry might need to learn Brenda

  6. My Dad was born in 1921 and was the oldest of three children when his Dad was killed in a coal mine accident when my Dad was only 7 years old. As such, he was then the man of the family. He many time told us of surviving on dandelion soup and lard sandwiches as a child. I remember that one of his favorite night time deserts was white bread broken up in a glass with milk and a bit of sugar. He left written memoirs of this time and to understand what he went through back then is truly amazing.

  7. SJ...I remember hearing about milk toast from my mother, who said that was what the children were given when they had upset stomachs. My parents didn't talk about the Depression, but now and then they would tell me about something when I asked, like Dad's poor mans pie. I think I now understand how things were from their actions back when I was young. The way Dad always fixed things himself rather than call a repairman, or the way Mother darned the holes in sox until the heels or toes were mostly darning thread, or the way she took old clothes and cut them down to make clothes for the younger ones. That had to be habits from hard times.

  8. Brenda...I just think that we have become so wasteful. Instead of sewing up torn seams in clothing, we just toss the garment and buy another. Or instead of trying to fix our small kitchen appliances, we just go get another one. I know that things aren't nearly as well made as they once were, but the time may come when the option of buying another may not be open to us. I wish I had paid better attention to the way my parents took care of things.

  9. Jim...Your Dad had a tough row to hoe, didn't he! How great for you that he wrote down his memories. I have a lot of writings from my Mother's side of the family, but very little from Dad's. An aunt once wrote that his family was too poor at that time to buy toys for the children, so they played with stones, pretending they were something like dollhouse dolls. Or soldiers in a battle. I have heard of lard sandwiches, but not of dandelion soup. It amazes me how creative they were, especially when food was scarce. These days folks get upset if McDonald's drive thru is closed. Sad, really.