The Great Depression: A Revolution in “Easy” Cooking

Imagine yourself as a housewife in need of a meal for your family, but all you have is a few potatoes, onions, and a pack of hot dogs. After the industrial revolution, people worked more than they spent time in the kitchen, and the average American citizen did not have the time to sit down to eat a meal with their family. By the time the Great Depression hit, there was already an abundant supply of cookbooks written specifically with simple, easy to make recipes for people who either did not have a lot of time on their hands or people who could not afford more complicated meals. However, consider who wrote such cookbooks directed towards the poor or working class citizens, and the authors’ purpose. Yes, these cookbooks offered a way to help people who were struggling with food preparation, but the target audience of such cookbooks probably could not afford to buy them, especially during the Great depression. On the other hand, middle-class or wealthier people could purchase these cookbooks and create what many of these books describe as, “simple,” or “frugal” meals for the “struggling” housewife. This creates not only a divide of social class, but also a divide in how people’s lives are shaped by the food accessible to them. So, the economic crash of the 1930s changed food culture as a whole because there was less variety in foods available and affordable to people, there were long periods of time people had to go without food, and that food sometimes had to be shared amongst many people such as in soup kitchens or dining halls.

One great asset to a depression era kitchen was hot dogs. The idea of the hot dog was first introduced to the U.S. in 1893, and was then sold for only 10 cents, or about two dollars nowadays. Hot dogs were a great way to incorporate protein or meat into one’s diet because they were cheap, easily accessible, and filling. Another golden item for a depression era kitchen were potatoes. Hot dogs, potatoes and onions are the main ingredients needed to make the “Poor Man’s Meal.” For every family, or group of people, the quantities of ingredients differ, but overall, this dish is extremely simple and inexpensive to make. Another cheap meal including hotdogs is Hoover Stew, named after the U.S. president elected right before the start of the Depression. This meal was able to feed families, and was given to soup kitchens to feed large quantities of hungry people looking for a free meal. Though there are a lot of variations to this dish, a common recipe included:

“cooking a 16oz box of pasta noodles… While the noodles were on the stove, hot dogs were sliced into round shapes. The pasta  was drained when it’s nearly done… and returned to the pot. The hot  dogs were then added, along with two cans of whole stewed tomatoes, and one can of corn or peas (undrained). This mixture was then brought to a boil and left to simmer until the pasta was done cooking. Corn and peas were not required to make the dish correctly, any inexpensive, canned vegetable worked as a sufficient substitute” (Shelley).

Instead of mixing potatoes with hot dogs, the Hoover Stew requires any form of noodles, and a canned vegetable. The idea of not draining the vegetables could be to add to the consistency of the stew, where in soup kitchens who had to spread this dish amongst a lot of people, it was more thin, whereas a family with much less people could have a thicker stew. 

A lack of job opportunities in many places made people leave their homes in favor of coming into cities to find work in factories or boarding houses, however most of these people ended up being jobless anyways and had to resort to food donations. One of such things was places like bread lines , but unfortunately women were not welcome in these kinds of places. Places of charity, associated with poverty, “for a woman, to be caught in the breadline milieu was to place her good character in question. To accommodate the women’s sense of propriety, a handful of all-female breadlines were established, but they never gained traction” (Ziegelman 67). The stigma that a woman could not accept donations or charity such as free food suggested that she did not have a man to take care of her, and even though women had more freedoms by this time in history, the idea of single, independent, working women was still something looked down upon.

While women were not welcome among bread lines or dining halls, a place they were welcome was ‘on the air.’ Women’s voices, specifically those knowledgeable in the art of cooking, were often broadcast on radio shows to discuss issues of the kitchen; easy recipes to make for housewives that were struggling to come up with meals for their families that also did not cost much or need too many ingredients.

These images show the General Foods air, or radio, show about cooking, using Frances Lee Barton’s voice and kitchen expertise to help women manage their kitchen and to cook better and more efficiently. Now, you may be asking who Frances Lee Barton is, and what credibility she has. In the newspaper clipping titled, “Mother of Eight Is Air Veteran,” it describes the same Frances Lee Barton from the General Foods radio show– “Cooking School of the Air,” as a mother of eight children, and talks a bit about her three year career on the air, as well as her years of being a housewife that was interested in hearing about other housewives’ problems: cooking, managing time with work, children, and kitchen duties.

Looking further into her work, and recipes, it seems she mainly focused on healthy yet tasty desserts and jellies rather than dishes like the Hoover Stew or Poor Man’s Meal. In regards to a specific page she wrote about Thanksgiving recipes (one of the only savory recipe collections I have found), it is mentioned that for those struggling with either the cost of buying meat and other classic Thanksgiving food ingredients, or simply those that do not know how to prepare these foods, she directs the readers to a page in a General Foods cookbook that only costs one dollar. However, were poor or working housewives even able to afford to read through these recipes? It seems much more likely for these struggling women to be able to access and listen to a radio show, if they had access to a radio, than to spend on cookbooks and the many food ingredients mentioned in the recipes.

Barton also worked closely in General Foods with a woman named Miss Ellen Dunham who served as, “‘Miss Clark’ on the Frances Lee Barton Cooking School of the Air on radio. She prepared dishes for the broadcasts and made all the sound effects” (TDO 13). Dunham later became the first woman vice-president of the General Foods company in 1958. Between Dunham and Frances Lee Barton, women leading in the food industry by broadcasting their voices or sharing cookbooks were very important in building women’s freedoms at a time where women did not have much choice in their lives other than being a housewife and relying on a husband.

In relation to Barton’s radio show, programming that came over the airwaves was a free source of information for people in the Depression Era. Instead of owning a bunch of cookbooks, people during this time, “would gather around a radio and listen to someone tell them how to make Jello… The depression was a time… ‘when we couldn’t afford to make mistakes…’ Mrs. Barton’s voice came directly into their homes, offering what she termed “tasty menu suggestions for these days of thrift and economy” (Nevada 315). So clearly, Miss Barton had a big impact on people’s lives, and made it into people’s homes where they would listen to her instructions on how exactly to make these meals.

 In the next newspaper clipping from decades later, it mentions a woman named Marie Sellers, director of the consumer service department of General Foods Corporation, is retiring. It is revealed that this Miss Sellers was, “the official Frances Lee Barton… one of her many responsibilities has been directing the daily Cooking School of the Air program” (Meade pg 25). So this whole time, the famous housewife, Frances Lee Barton, was a persona for the air and publicity of General Foods. This begs the question as to why they invented this whole character of a mother of eight, rather than just having Miss Sellers herself as the voice and face of this project.

Since these writings were targeted towards housewives, someone writing about food to be taken seriously would most likely have to be a housewife with years of experience cooking for kids or people in general. The persona of Frances Lee Barton has eight kids, whereas Miss Sellers most likely does not have any as she is referred to by Miss, meaning she is unmarried. The idea of working women was not unheard of, but working, and independent women who were unmarried most of their lives was pretty uncommon and even probably looked down on as ‘unwomanly’ or odd. After a few decades working in the food industry and retiring, it makes sense after reading the last newspaper clipping why the General Foods company would want to create a housewife persona with many kids for Miss Sellers, to make it seem like she has a lot of experience in this field, even though nowadays we know one does not have to be married with kids to know about cooking.

So, looking at the different, strange recipes from the Great Depression or popularized at that time due to the need for quick, simple and affordable dishes, it draws a connection to the role or attitude society took towards independent or working women during this time.

Marie Sellers’ name may have been forgotten with time, but she was a pioneer in the food industry in that she created a whole persona to have her voice heard, and her recipes shared amongst many. Though many housewives who were poor may not have had access to her cookbooks, the radio show of teaching people different recipes saved many people during the Great Depression in being able to learn and create meals for their families without having access to many ingredients.

Food in the Great Depression was scarce and not necessarily affordable, however meals were a thing made to share. Through the economic crash, people’s uses of food and access to ingredients is a testament to community, and helping one another.

Works Cited 

“1930s General Foods Cooking School of the Air Baking Book.” Image, Vintage Home.

Vintagecookbooklover.com. 

“Food Executive Will Visit OSU.” The Daily Oklahoman. 10 May 1963, pg 13.

“From Bread Lines to Hunger Marches: Street Photography in the 1930s.” FPG/Getty Images.

The Guardian. 3 Mar. 2017.

Meade, Mary. “Expert Gives Her Favorite Recipe for It.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 12 Jul. 1950,

pg 29.

“Mother of Eight is Air Veteran.” Image. Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, New York). 2 Feb.

1935, Page 23. 

Nevada, Charlene. “Her Recipes Were a Cure for Depression.” Daily News. New York. 18 Aug.

1982, pg 315.

Shelley, Tennille. “Great Depression Cooking– The Poorman’s Meal.” Survivopedia. 2018.

“Thanksgiving Dinner Fixings.” Image, General Foods. What’s Cookin’ @ Special Collections.

Virginia Tech Culinary History Blog. Archivistkira. 11 Sept. 2015.

“Tip Estes of Fowler, Ind. and family eating dinner in 1937.” Image. Library of Congress; the

Crowley Company. 

Ziegelman, Jane and Andrew Coe. A Square Meal : A Culinary History of the Great Depression.

Harper. New York. 2016.

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