Looking at the Great Depression of the 1930s through the eyes of its cookbooks gives a new perspective on food, one of the vital needs of Minnesotans in a time of economic crisis. The Historical Society library has a nice collection of Minnesota cookbooks from the decade, many of which reflect the economic travails of the period.
Minnesotans who lived on farms often had more food available to them than people who lived through the Depression in town or in The Cities because they raised animals for milk, eggs, and meat and grew vegetables, berries, and some other fruits in large gardens. Farm women had the skills, space, and equipment to preserve food when it was ripe and plentiful, for their families' nourishment and enjoyment after the state's short growing season. In general, though the 30s were tough on farmers too, food remained plentiful for many, as demonstrated in this charming oversized cookbook published by The Farmer in 1931 to help farm girls learn to cook. The cookbook says nothing about the need to help Mother economize, to stretch ingredients or learn to use less expensive substitutes. It gives recipes and instructions for everything from muffins to a whole meal for the family. And this was published after the farm economy had been in dire straits throughout the 1920s!
People in small towns, on the iron ranges, and even in larger cities also planted gardens and even raised an animal or two for the family table. Cookbook writers and organizations that compiled cookbooks for sale clearly expected town and city women to put up food and probably assumed they grew at least tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill in backyard gardens. These cookbooks encouraged them to emulate their sisters on the farm - without saying so directly - by including large numbers of recipes for canning preserves, pickles, relishes, and sauces.
A frequently seen recipe type in 1930s cookbooks is the "Mock recipe" which attempted to make a desirable dish without using one of the main ingredients that makes it desirable. The best known is probably mock apple pie, made with soda crackers and lots of sugar and spices. The Northwest Housewives Prize-Winning Recipes Book, published by the St. Paul Daily News Home Economic Dept. in 1934, includes a recipe for Mock Maple Mousse that uses brown sugar and water to substitute for the maple syrup and a recipe for Mock Turkey Legs that calls for veal steak and pork tenderloin, molded into the shape of a drumstick on a wooden skewer.
Even during the Depression, the flour millers of Minneapolis still needed to sell their flour. The Betty Crocker cookbooks in the MHS collection show how General Mills encouraged women to use their products in baking and other cooking: the key words here are Bisquick and celebrities. Bisquick combined flour and fat to speed the baking and cooking process; movie stars helped struggling Americans to escape temporarily from their difficult lives. And movie stars using Bisquick - well, the combination must have seemed irresistible to the advertising folks at General Mills. The cookbooks emphasized the glamour of the stars, both men and women, with alluring portraits of the celebrities and their chosen dishes like Mary Pickford's strawberry shortcake.
Pillsbury started a cookery club to encourage both brand loyalty and more use of flour. The MHS collections only hold one issue, Bulletin No. 2 from November of 1934 - but we'd love to acquire more. The editor was Mary Ellis Ames, whose title was Director of Pillsbury's Cooking Service. Unlike Betty Crocker, she was a real person who used her own name. ("Ann Pillsbury," who demonstrates delicious baked goods at the Mill City Museum, came later.) Ms. Ames’s only reference to hard times in this issue is to use the word "practical". Several recipes provided, like Mexican Pancakes and Almond Marigold Sponge Cake, promoted the use of specialty flours like Pillsbury's Pancake Flour, Pillsbury's White Corn Meal, and Pillsbury's Sno Sheen Cake Flour.
The Russell-Miller Milling Company promoted its Occident Flour with a booklet of Tested Recipes that featured a cross-stitched cover and proclaimed its seals of approval from the Good Housekeeping Bureau, the Farmers Wife magazine's reader-testers, and the Household Magazine. It appealed to economy-minded bakers by printing a letter that asserted that Occident Flour produced 13 to 28 ounces more bread per 49-pound sack than Flour A and Flour B. Which just might have been General Mills and Pillsbury, but brand names weren't mentioned.
Home economists often worked at establishments where cooking for large numbers of people was essential. A boon to them was a book called Quantity Cookery, written by two well-known Minnesota home economists, Nola Treat and Lenore Richards. In the 1941 edition of their book, 1st published in the 1930s, they advise: "In Discussing the Limitations in Menu Making the Element of Cost Has Come Up Again and Again. It becomes a definite restriction in institutions that work on a budget, or where the group to be served demands good, wholesome foods at the lowest price." Examples given are factory cafeterias, school lunchrooms, and restaurants and hotels “whose patrons comprise the lower-income groups”. They then discuss the need to re-use all leftovers, noting "It requires a good deal of ingenuity to use these leftovers in some other form so as to maintain variety and that element of surprise which is so essential."
And of course, women continued to study nutrition and home economics at the University of Minnesota's "farm campus." The MHS library is lucky to have an example of a small cookbook they produced, modestly titled Brain Food. The students used humor in compiling their cookbook, which featured recipes they had solicited from important and well-known members of the university community. University President Guy Stanton Ford had the honor of the first recipe, for a dish called Sunday Night Supper - a bowl of crackers and milk, with peanut- buttered crackers on the side.
A cookbook written by another Minnesota home economist, Mrs. J.B. Graham of Duluth, illuminates the challenges of feeding a family and of making a living on a northern Minnesota farm. 212 Ways to Prepare Potatoes, , establishes Mrs. Graham as a premiere writer of cookbooks for hard times. She lovingly dedicates the book, which sold for 75 cents, to “Our Rural Friends of the Arrowhead. May it Wend its Way Into Every Home and Add Interest to the Homemakers Cookery. May it Help to Bring Prosperity to The Arrowhead Farmer.” The recipes came in large part from the Duluth Chamber of Commerce’s annual recipe contests held during the city’s Potato Week in 1932, 33, and 34. There are recipes for potato breads, muffins, pancakes, and a chocolate mashed potato spice cake, potato doughnuts, fritters, patties, and pies. Cornish pasties and English pasties, dumplings and puddings, soufflés, and sausage, potatoes smothered, creamed and scalloped, hashed and fried. The “foreign recipes” section includes Swedish Kropp Kakor, Norwegian Lefsa, and a savory/sweet Austrian Potato Potica that calls for sugar and cinnamon as well as ham or bacon. The book may have helped many a poor northern Minnesota family through the rest of the Depression by providing a real variety of dishes from one primary ingredient that was inexpensively available.
Article contributed by Debbie Miller, Reference Specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society