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Food Files from the WPA
The Faro Caudill family eating dinner in their dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico. October 1940. Photo by Russell Lee.

In this photograph by Russell Lee, the Faro Caudill family eats dinner in Pie Town, New Mexico, in October 1940 (Library of Congress). Click image for more info.

In the last years of the 1930s, the last years before interstates and industry turned America into one big, homogenized market, Depression-era writers went out to see what Americans were eating.

They went North, South, East and West. Today, their report reads like a wildly diverse national potluck of very regional, very vivid cuisine.

Spoon bread and burgoo, oyster stew and chicken bog, hush puppies and possum, Johnny cake and hoecake and rabbit and grunion.

This hour, On Point: What we ate before we all ate the same. We’ll read the great American menu — and tuck in.

You can join the conversation — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Joining us in our studio is Mark Kurlansky, bestselling author of many books, including “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” and “Salt: A World History.” His new anthology is “The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food – from the Lost WPA files.”

Also in our studio is JJ Gonson, a personal chef with a background in short order and home cooking. Boston Magazine named her “Boston’s Best Personal Chef.” She’s founder of Cuisine En Locale, based in Cambridge, Mass., and writes an eponymous blog, where she’s just written about food shopping and economies of scale.

In this video clip, Tom and our guests sample tastes of the ’30s…

Here’s our tasting menu for this hour. These are authentic 1930s dishes taken from Mark Kurlansky’s book.

Plain Maine Chowder
from the recipe of Mabel G. Hall, a Maine historian

- Ingredients: diced salt pork, onions, potatoes, water, salt, a very little bit of milk

Kentucky Wilted Lettuce
“Throughout Kentucky, and particularly in the mountainous area, wilted lettuce is certain to appear on the table of most every household that has a garden.”

- Ingredients: fresh lettuce, fresh green onions, salt, pepper, bacon, bacon grease

Arizona Menudo
from a description of an “Arizona Menudo Party” by J. Del Castillo

- Ingredients: beef tripe, hominy, salt, pepper

Depression Cake (far western U.S.)
from an essay by Michael Kennedy and Edward B. Reynolds, a cake born out of necessity by a woman preparing for a July 4 “picnic, rodeo, and general get-together”
- No eggs, butter, or milk.
- Ingredients: raisin water, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice, bacon drippings, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Aaron from Vermont

    I’ve been volunteering at “Living Well” a community care home in Bristol. For lunch one day we had salmon pea wiggle. The recipe came from one of the older residents. I was tolled it was popular during the Great Depression because of the availability of Army surplus canned salmon.
    During these rough economic times it will be useful to look back at a time when Americans had to survive on less, as well as looking around the world where people have always had to make do with less.

  • Joan Countryman

    May Breakfasts live in Rhode Island, still.

  • Kevin


    This information was sent out by the Writer’s Almanac on May 1, 2009

    Today is May Day, a holiday with its roots in the fertility celebrations of pre-Christian Europe. At Oxford University, otherwise intelligent young scholars jump off the Magdalen Bridge into a section of the Cherwell River that is two feet deep. At St. Andrews in Scotland, students gather on the beach the night before May Day, build bonfires, and then at sunrise they run into the very cold North Sea, some of them without any clothes on. There are bonfires and revelry in rural Germany. And there’s hula dancing to the “May Day is Lei Day” song in Hawaii. In Minneapolis, there’s the May Day Parade that marches south down Bloomington Avenue. It’s organized by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, now in its 35th year and attracting about 35,000 people.

    May Day is also Labor Day for much of the world, a day to commemorate the economic and social improvements of workers, like the eight-hour workday. It evolved from the 1886 Haymarket Square riots, so in the United States, President Cleveland moved Labor Day to September to disassociate it with the radical left. In 1958, U.S. Congress under Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 “Loyalty Day” and also “Law Day” — two holidays that have not caught on. May Day is still a prominent holiday in communist countries like Cuba and the People’s Republic of China. Two years ago, a May Day rally in Los Angeles in support of illegal immigrants turned into the L.A. May Day Mêlée after police fired rubber bullets into a crowd of demonstrators they had ordered to disperse.

    Incidentally, the international distress signal code word “Mayday” has nothing to do with May 1st. It’s actually derived from the French m’aider,meaning, come help me.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author) wrote a novelette entitled “May Day,” which appeared in 1920

  • George

    My great-grandmother was originally from Indiana before she ended up in California. Holiday meals at her house always ended with persimmon pudding. I have never met anyone who even heard of it, let alone taste it. Thank you, Mark Kurlansky for bringing back that memory.

  • Buck Hinson

    My Grandmother put peanutbutter in grits as she got no lunch and it made her breakfast last longer and my Great Grandmother made vinigur pie. It is still a family recipe.

  • http://www.vissim.com Westford Pete

    May Breakfasts are alive and well at the Unitarian Church of Chelmsford, Mass. Too late for this year, but mark your calendar for the next…
    First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church 83rd Annual May Breakfast
    Date Saturday May 2, 2009
    Time 7:30 AM – 11:30 AM
    Contact Joan Keane
    Description Bring friends and neighbors to experience the famous First Parish homemade donuts while you enjoy a delicious, affordable breakfast. Menu offers bacon & sausage, toast & French toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, and lots of coffee & juice. May baskets full of homemade fudge and bags of fresh made donuts will also be available to take home. For more information contact Joan Keane at 978-392-5955.

  • chris

    Spent a year on Hilton Head in 1977, one of the highlights of which was a very rustic Gullah restaurant on a then two lane rt 278 that offered an oyster stew breakfast served over grits with eggs and toast. The stew was broth based cayenne spicy with lovely fresh oysters that elevated the grits and eggs to haute cuisine. Have (southern) pined for it ever since. This was regional cuisine at its best.

  • Putney Swope

    My grandmother who was from Brooklyn use to buy live fish from the fish shop and kept them alive in the bath tub until she was ready to make gefilte fish which was for Passover. She use to make everything from scratch. She made chicken soup, pies, all her food was simple. Of course being from the city she did not have a garden but her whole way of thinking and cooking was informed by living through the depression.

  • gina

    for down-home cooking and practical tips on making do w/ very little, don’t miss this amazing internet phenom:

    “93 year old cook and great grandmother, Clara, recounts her childhood during the Great Depression as she prepares meals from the era. Learn how to make simple yet delicious dishes while listening to stories from the Great Depression.”


    this started as a amateur filming his grandmother to capture her recipes and lively personality for his family and friends. thanks to viral video, clara now has a youtube channel, a blog, a dvd for sale, a cookbook in the works and major media interviews!

    enjoy; she’s a force of nature!

  • Jenny

    Aaron from Vermont-

    That’s so funny that you should mention Salmon Pea Wiggle! My husband (he’s 50) grew up on a Vermont dairy farm and he has reminisced many times about his mother serving that on special occasions. My understanding is that almost every ingredient was canned; canned salmon, canned peas, canned milk, and that ever-present can of cream of mushroom soup, all poured over noodles (not canned) and topped with crumbled saltine crackers and that parmesan from the green cardboard container. And he wonders why I am not interested in making it….

  • Vicki

    My parents were raised during the depression, living in northern Minnesota. Looking through my mother’s recipe collection, she had more than a few recipes for jello salads. She said that fresh greens were non-existent during the winters, so they would put home canned vegetables in gelatin to make salad.
    Gelatin salads and ground meat with potatoes were a standard items on the table as I grew up. Even spaghetti was a foreign item. Forget about pizza and tacos. Today, my teen-aged kids wouldn’t know what to eat if those options weren’t available.

  • Stacey Mott

    Scrapple anyone?

    Even in this “modern age” my family longs for real scrapple. My supermarket carries something in the freezer section it calls “scrapple” but it’s just not the same. We can only get the real stuff when we visit family in Pennsylvania.

    Not sure I want any details on what’s in it, but I wonder what the folks on today’s program might know about scrapple.

  • Mary Ellen

    My family still goes far and wide to find scrapple — a staple of my father’s Penn. breakfast. He ate it as a child in Shippensburg, PA, in the 1920s. Scrapple I think started as the leavings on the floor of the butcher shop, mixed with pepper and enough corn meal to hold it together. We slice it and fry the thin (or thick) slices, and eat with maple syrup. You can still get the real thing from some of the Amish farmers’ markets (which we do). It is still a family tradition of ours for breakfast on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and other special occasions in the winter.

  • Emma

    I am 25 and only just now getting into cooking, so I don’t have a lot of experience or secrets under my belt. I come from a long line of midwestern farm women, so I have a preference for German food, like the wilted salad. I also have fond memories from my childhood in Missouri of potluck suppers with and endless line of casseroles. I have moved around the country quite a bit, so I have also incorporated a lot of these regional tastes into my repertoire. In these tough times, I find myself just making things up as I pull things out of my pantry. I often call my mother to ask for advice or to brag about my “new” recipes. She often tells me the I have reinvented many of my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s depression-era and post-war era recipes. I now think I need to go through their recipe cards! I live in a small apartment in Boston, so it’s wonderful to have this somewhat unintentional connection to my farm family past!

  • Janice

    Many of the foods you are describing sound like they would work well with today’s slow cookers. Old style meals that are nearly as convenient as “pop it in the mircowave meals” I’ve been enjoying the smells of pulled pork cooking all night and all day and will be bringing it along to a pot luck supper tonight. Tougher i.e., cheaper cuts of meat work best…they simmer till they fall off the bone and recipes usually do not call for refrigerated creams and butters because they will curdle in the pot.

  • http://aguystudio.com ALLAN GUY

    In the Northern Neck of Virginia…the peninsula between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers…shad run every spring. By the zillions. Hickory shad and American shad.

    THe Indians taught the early colonists to catch these fish and “plank them.” Meaning, you butterfly them, smear them with a little fat if you like, and tack them spread open to a cedar plank. Cedar is a resonous tree common in the area and when you prop the planked shad near a fire, it sort of acts like mesquite in your backyard barbeque grill. It smokes and provides flavor.

    Now you just put the plank in the broiler, but same idea. And don’t toss the shad roe! Fry or broil that up with bacon, yum!

    ANy politician worth electing goes to shad plankings in Virginia in the early spring, usually at the local Kiwanis Club or the like!

  • Katharine Owens

    Charleston, SC She-crab soup and shad roe… good stuff.

  • Rachel

    I just joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) program where I receive a box of meat and produce from a farm each week. I never know what I’m going to get, and end up desperately trying to come up with ways to cook and eat the food I get before the next box comes in. Sounds a little like how they used to do it in the depression! Simple, inexpensive ingredients and no recipes (okay sometimes I use google). Anyway, I feel like I’m learning valuable lessons for cooking in hard times, and your show today reinforced that idea. Thanks!

  • Suzanne

    My mothers family was from Nova Scotia and her best recipe was a salted fish callled (spelling) finanhade. My fathers family was from Missouri and he was a wizard with ham hocks and lima bean, okra and fried cornmeal cakes with maple syrup

  • Frederic C.

    Peanut butter and mayo anyone?

  • Me

    Here’s the real deal… someone who lived it and cooked it:


  • Angela D.

    @Frederic C.

    Peanut butter and mayo? That really takes me back! When I was little my father used to make a sort of peanut butter panini (he had a press). He liked his with mayonaise; I had mine with a bit of grape jelly.

    Thanks for the memory!

  • RandyT

    You commented several times on the loss of regionality in America during the post war era.

    It wasn’t the post war era. It was the war era. Just about every able bodied male was in some branch of the military. Every unmarried young woman went to USO dances. A lot of young people married, and raised families with partners they never would have met if the war hadn’t homogenized our society like no other event in our history.

    I still know many of the traditional family recipes from my mothers side of the family. Things such as “Barrel Bread”, which is made by pouring warm milk, mixed with yeast, or sourdough starter, into the flour barrel, and mixing it by hand, letting it rise, and then punching it down, and kneading it all in the flour barrel. “Cake”, is the same basic recipe with sugar, eggs, cinnamon, allspice, and ginger added.

    And, as my grandfather said, “I can’t understand why everyone kills the dandelions in their lawns. In a pinch they taste pretty good.”

  • Elliott

    Video camera in a radio studio.

    Microphones and mixage abounds.

    Guess which microphone we’ll hear on the video?

    Welcome to television, radio people!

  • http://www.communityopinion.com Brad Senden

    Loved this show – wonderful topic. I did not live in the 30′s but did spend some time in Indiana. Persimmon pudding is a wonderful dish to make. I still make it here in California – but have to let the store-bought persimmons rot a little on my counter top. In Indiana, the best pudding is made from fruit that has been frozen by the first frost and fallen to the ground. Being a bit damaged, they are much sweeter when cooked. You have to be careful, however, former Indiana Gov Bob Orr broke his leg when he slipped on a fallen persimmon.

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/about-on-point/wen-stephenson/ Wen Stephenson

    Elliott: very funny. You’re right, of course. Then again, this isn’t television and was never meant to be. It’s the web!

  • Ellen Woodbury

    Growing up in Maine in the 40′s and 50′s, I ate fish (haddock, mackerel, cod, smelts)..whatever was running and the fishermen could get. My father and I loved Spawn…the ovaries and eggs of some fish. Fried in butter and served with salt, pepper and a little vinegar. I can taste them right now! Our Wiggle dish wasn’t salmon…it was Shrimp Wiggle..made with canned shrimp and served on top of saltines. Saturday night was Baked Beans and Brown Bread. Your choice of pea or kidney beans told almost as much about you as did your religion.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for this wonderful show! I spent my early childhood in Lexington, KY and have lived most of my life in North Carolina. It was hearing Noah Adams talk, in a bookstore in Asheville, NC about his Kentucky accent that first made me stop and appreciate where I’m from. He said he missed his accent he’d gotten rid of for radio and he thought “everyone should sound like they are from somewhere.” Yes, I love accents but also our regional foods give us an accent. I have always enjoyed buying cookbooks at yard sales or used bookstores my favorites are the ones compiled by a local church. You get a real flavor for a community through their food. I can always woo a crowd here in NC with a Kentucky Bourbon Cake or Kentucky Derby Pie. But here in NC I love our Eastern NC barbecue (vinegar based with crushed red peppers). Every where you go you can find good “old fashioned” food.

    Those smells and tastes transport me through time faster than any photograph to feel the love of my grandmother’s table on any given Sunday.

  • Donald C Smith

    While growing up on Long Island during the 40’s and 50’s, one of our favorite treats was War Cake, an “old family recipe”. This is one that I still make. When the subject of the depression cake came up, I realized that it was the same thing. The only difference was that the brown sugar and spices were boiled with the raisins for 5 minutes and then the raisins were included in the final product. Just last year I found the original recipe card. It was a promotional recipe from Brooklyn Union Gas dated May 1916 promoting the use of their new gas oven.

  • Lisa

    I loved this show; will there be a sequel since it was so popular? Our families weren’t really affected by the Depression Era, they never had anything to start with so they had nothing to lose. My husband’s family is French Canadian and I have his grandmother’s ledger from 1914 that has her recipes for everything from homemade wines to souffles – all in a dialect that no one can decipher! He has many memories of helping his grandparents on their farm on Lake Champlain and the dinners that followed. My grandparents were from the Adirondack Mountains and I have memories of digging horseradish roots with my grandmother and being overcome from the pugency after it was blended with vinegar. In the fall I would help her make venison mincemeat for holiday deserts, traditions that I carry on today. My husband and I are in our 40′s and live in the Adirondack Mountains so and our freezer is always full, but not with prepackaged food; moose, venison, fish, fruits and veggies {ok between the rocks and the short season those are limited, but we try}. I never thought about it in terms of Depression Era cooking, it’s always been a way of life; foraging and hunting for food then preparing it simply so the freshness shines through, the same way it’s been done for centuries. I guess that I am fortunate to live someplace where the smelt still run and a group of friends can canoe out to a bog and pick cranberries. I found it ironic that I was listening to the broadcast on my way to a weekend of camping so that we could fish for Lake Trout using a method that is all but forgotten, it’s called “pulling copper” and it is an art, hard work but well worth the yummy results.

  • Paul

    (RandyT, 5/15/09) “You commented several times on the loss of regionality in America during the post war era.

    “It wasn’t the post war era. It was the war era. Just about every able bodied male was in some branch of the military. Every unmarried young woman went to USO dances. A lot of young people married, and raised families with partners they never would have met if the war hadn’t homogenized our society like no other event in our history.”

    True. It’s a point historians don’t feel comfortable discussing, because WW2 was a heroic time and raised the standards of living and education for so many. But it also killed off a lot of valuable culture and a lot of the freedom we had had.

    For one thing, people wanted to leave behind everything from before the war. It all got associated with hard times and the primitive life.

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