8 Depression-Era Recipes That Help Save You Money

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Poverty-stricken, bankrupt, poor male with mustache eating a boot by candle light in a dirty, cold room, wearing a hat.
greggsphoto / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.

The New York Stock Exchange crashed on Oct. 24, 1929, a day that’s come to be known as Black Thursday. It was the first of many financial calamities that created the most notorious period of economic depression in American history — the Great Depression.

For most of the 1930s, Americans dealt with a soaring unemployment rate that peaked at nearly 25% and economic conditions that made prices skyrocket, including on food.

Thus, a whole category of meals was created that’s now known as Depression-Era recipes.

Why Make Depression-Era Recipes?

Upset shopper shocked by grocery prices
Prostock-studio / Shutterstock.com

If you have parents or grandparents who grew up in that era, you no doubt have heard stories about the ways people got creative to get by. Throughout this period, a lot of that innovation went toward feeding families.

That’s still relevant today with food prices, inflation and a staggering 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. People are looking for all kinds of creative solutions to save.

Perhaps we can dust off some old family recipes that helped the Greatest Generation through some of the toughest years in American history.

From desserts made from water to soups made by gangsters, we have a list of Depression-Era recipes that are big on flavor but light on your wallet.

Dandelion Salad

Field of yellow dandelions.
Dark_Side / Shutterstock.com

This one is literally dirt cheap. Its history also goes far beyond the Great Depression. Medieval monks in England and Ireland wrote about foraged greens that were safe to eat. American pioneers who took part in Westward Expansion also used the recipe.

But when the Depression was met with the Dust Bowl, a catastrophic drought that devastated crops across the country, many Americans had to make the most of anything they had. That includes the unassuming weeds in their yards.

The recipe we recommend calls for onions, tomatoes, salt and pepper for flavor. This is a very simple recipe that, with the base of dandelion greens, could be mixed with anything you have on hand.

Make sure to wash wild dandelions very thoroughly, and let them soak for at least an hour. Also avoid lawns that regularly use pesticides.

Poor Man’s Meal

Hot dogs
Tiger Images / Shutterstock.com

This next recipe comes to us courtesy of Clara Cannucciari. She lived through the Great Depression, and her grandson recorded her recipes on YouTube.

Though she is no longer with us, Clara left behind her stories and Depression-Era recipes in her own cookbook, “Clara's Kitchen.”

The Poor Man’s Meal has several variations and was a staple for many lower and middle class families throughout the ‘30s.

Clara’s recipe calls for potatoes, hotdogs, onions and tomato sauce. Like the Dandelion Salad, this is a simple recipe that is easy to customize if you want to make it your own.

Hoover Stew

Spaghetti with hot dog slices and ketchup sauce, called "American Spaghetti" in the Philippines
Brian Yarvin / Shutterstock.com

Herbert Hoover served as president through the first years of the Depression and was commonly seen as doing little to alleviate the country’s problems. As a result, the name Hoover became a byword for anything associated with the Depression.

People called shantytowns Hoovervilles, called rabbit or squirrel meat Hoover Steaks, and referred to the newspapers that the homeless used for sleeping as Hoover Blankets.

This is all to explain the name of our next recipe, Hoover Stew. Large families or and struggling communities often ate the nourishing and rich meal.

The stew, with a hearty base of your choice of pasta, tomatoes and hot dogs, can stretch for days or feed a family on a shoestring budget.

Scarface’s Soup

Bowl of soup
Steve Lalich / Shutterstock.com

There is probably no criminal in U.S. history that rose to such notoriety as Al Capone. The mob boss of Chicago ran a criminal empire that started with the 1920s and prohibition. It reached its peak in 1929, mere months before the stock market crash.

One of the reasons Capone skirted the law for so long was because of a very effective PR campaign.

He ran multiple charities, including a soup kitchen in Chicago that began operations in 1931, during the worst period of the Depression. The soup kitchen fed thousands. Its soup was so delicious, Chicagoans talked about it for decades after.

Courtesy of the YouTube channel Tasting History, we have one of Capone’s dishes, a soup that comes directly from a 1917 Italian cookbook. It resurged in popularity during the ’30s because of its recipes designed “especially to meet the high cost of living.”

Made primarily with beef, tomatoes, potatoes and pasta, this soup is delicious and filling. It’s also simple enough to remain inexpensive and easy to customize with whatever you have at home.

Peanut Butter Bread

Homemade Peanut Butter Bread Loaf in a Pan
Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock.com

You may have noticed with these recipes, spices and certain staples like milk and eggs are almost nonexistent.

During the Depression, international trade tanked, leaving imported spices soaring in price. Milk and eggs were also in short supply because of the Dust Bowl and the high toll the bad economy took on rural communities, especially farms.

Other staple, shelf-stable foods were still around, however, including peanut butter. Peanut butter became a regular part of the American diet because of rationing during World War I.

It was thankfully cheap and plentiful for families in need during the ‘30s. That’s where our next recipe, peanut butter bread, comes in.

Dylan Hollis, another YouTube creator, demonstrates a simple, easy recipe from 1932 that creates a sweet treat that can be a snack, dessert or sandwich bread.

Water Pie

hands pour water from a jug into a bowl of flour.
Olga Dubravina / Shutterstock.com

Nothing shows more creativity than Depression-Era recipes like this: a pie whose main ingredient is literally water.

This dish was especially popular in the South, where, with fewer cities than in the North, supplies were even more scarce.

The recipe, courtesy of Southern Plate, calls for the most barebones of ingredients — water, sugar, butter, flour and a touch of vanilla extract. The result is a custard-like pie with a light, sweet taste.

Water Pie made a resurgence, mainly on TikTok, because of the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. People soon found that they could even switch water for other drinks, like Sprite.

Mock Apple Pie

crackers stacked in white bowl
samritk / Shutterstock.com

The pie is a fun and tasty treat with a surprising taste that also has a cheap price tag. Like Dandelion Salad, its history stretches back before the Depression, as this recipe was developed by frontier dwellers for hard winters when apples were scarce.

Another dish demonstrated by Dylan Hollis, Mock Apple Pie shows some real culinary wizardry. It uses Ritz crackers and cinnamon to mimic the taste of apples.

This recipe has been advertised on Ritz cracker boxes ever since it proved a popular recipe during the Depression. Its reputation would really take off during World War II, however, as apples were rationed for the troops overseas.

Depression Cake

Homemade cake
EllyGri / Shutterstock.com

Much like the Poor Man’s Meal, this last recipe has a lot of variations, often the result of people using what they had on hand. The most common recipe, simply called Depression Cake, calls for raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice to create a sweet but punchy flavor.

As this requires no milk, eggs or butter, it is also an inexpensive vegan alternative.

Other popular variations of the Depression Cake include chocolate variations. For those feeling brave, the ultimate frugal dessert, Waste Not Cake, calls specifically for sour milk.

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The Great Depression was a difficult time to live through. Many people in today’s economic climate may recognize the struggles their families went through in the last century.

With their simplicity and inexpensive ingredients, these Depression-era recipes are not only evidence of their creators’ resourcefulness, but also a way for people to think creatively about how to save money in the kitchen today.

Who knows, with our own economic challenges, maybe in 60 years people will feel nostalgic for Tiktok Sprite Pie, Two-Ingredient Pizza Dough and Tiktok Spaghetti.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.