Hard times aren’t just coming, y’all, they are right upon us. It behooves us, therefore, to learn the ways that our ancestors knew, the ways that will keep our families fed, clothed, and sheltered, when all around us gives way. When everyday is a struggle, money is non-existent, and you don’t know where your next meal is gonna come from, it’s good to know how those who came before us survived in darkening and dangerous days.
One of the biggest drains on our budgets is usually how much we have to spend on feeding ourselves. The best way to cut your food budget is to provide for yourself. When we grow, hunt, or gather our own food, we not only eat better, we eat far cheaper than we could otherwise. Gardening, growing fruit trees and vines, raising animals for food, hunting and fishing, knowing how to identify wild foods, and knowing how to preserve the food for times of leanness is how the old folks before us survived in the worst possible conditions.
I have neither the time nor the resources to teach you these skills, though I strongly suggest you take it upon yourself to learn those things if you don’t already know them. I can, however, tell you what my mother’s family did to survive the hard days during the Depression.
My grandparents had a garden, a milk cow, hens for eggs and eating, fished, slaughtered a hog every fall (and, as mama said, they ate everything but the oink), ran trotlines, hunted, had a smoke house and a root cellar, canned hundred of quarts of vegetables every fall, grew corn and had their own cornmeal ground, cooked every meal from scratch, and any leftovers were eaten at another meal or incorporated in some way into a new one. They bought their coffee, tea, sugar, brown sugar, saltines, peanut butter, and flour; often those things were the only foodstuff they needed to buy.
My family and their neighbors were dirt poor but they ate well. They knew how to stretch food and use basic items many ways. Hard times and necessity taught them that. Potatoes might be boiled, buttered, fried, diced, hashed, mashed, baked, added to peas or beans, used in gravy, made into soup or dumplings, used in casseroles, or used to make bread. Potato pancakes could be made from potatoes cooked and mashed or from raw grated ones. Mamas even made mashed potato candy.
Rice could also be served dozens of ways. From fried to boiled, sugared or made into pudding, added to casseroles, mixed into soups, made into croquettes, and seasoned so many, many, ways, rice was a staple that many mamas depended on.
Hard times didn’t necessarily mean no treats. Grandma would bake sweet potatoes and biscuits for the children when they’d come to visit. Crackers and peanut butter was also a common snack. Saltines or leftover cornbread could be broken up in glasses of cold milk. Even slices of bread might torn up in a glass of milk. These were treats that both tasted good and used what they had.
Soup was made out of any and everything, even ketchup and water if they had nothing else. My mama made wonderful soups out of just water, tomatoes, macaroni, and potatoes just like her mother and grandmother before her had. Seasoned and served with cornbread, it was filling and delicious. Another tasty and inexpensive soup they made was a simple mixture of black eyed peas, pocketbook lima beans, tomatoes, and salt and pepper. When things were especially lean, beans could be cooked long and slow so they made lots of broth. Mamas would ladle these soup beans over slices of cornbread.
Gravy was made from water, milk, potatoes, tomatoes, sausage, hamburger meat, dried meat, and even chocolate (a delicacy for many a young child and those not quite so young). Gravy is delicious and filling and excellent for adding just a little bit more to supper when times are hard.
Sandwiches were cheap, easy, and made for good eating on long, hot, Summer days when Mamas just didn’t want to heat up the kitchen any more. They were good for those times when there was little in the larder, too. Southern mamas would spread mayonnaise on slices of bread and top it with canned pineapple (rounds or crushed), sliced tomatoes, sliced bananas, peeled and sliced apples with a bit of salt, or just about anything else they had on hand. Beans could be spread between slices of bread for a filling supper. One of my sons loves chili sandwiches, another old-time specialty. Creativity and the desire to eat led to all sorts of other sandwich possibilities: spaghetti, cream cheese, cheese and onion, scrambled or fried eggs, cucumbers, peanut butter with mayonnaise and lettuce, peanut butter and banana or apple, apple and cheese, and more. If none of this was available, you tried something new–just like many before you had. Even lard was served as a sandwich filling.
Some of what the old folks ate is obviously foreign to us and therein lies the problem. Too many of us have forgotten what it means to eat humbly. We’re so used to having what we want, that we forget to want what we have–and to be grateful for it. Those who lived through the Depression and other hard times didn’t complain about lard sandwiches; they ate them and were grateful for them. They’d sweeten them with a bit of molasses, cane syrup, brown sugar, or honey if they had it. If not, it was still food. Mayonnaise sandwiches, mustard sandwiches, or even sugared bread filled many a hungry stomach. If we face enough of our own hard times, perhaps we’ll cease being picky and just be grateful.
Nothing in the garden or in the fields went to waste. They would eat the leaves of anything that could be eaten, ate edible flowers, dug roots and used barks for teas. They even battered edible blossoms of plants and fried them. Dandelions were used tip to root. Poke salat was common fare as long as it was young and hadn’t berried. Maypops were eagerly gathered and devoured. Wild plums and berries were searched for and taken home for supper; the leftovers were made into jams and jellies. Watermelons were eaten down to the rind and then scraped, peeled, and turned into preserves or pickles. Corncobs would be scraped and boiled with sugar; they made a fine, tasty, jelly. Tomatoes could be made into jam, either red or green. Apple peels and peelings from other fruits could be boiled with sugar and turned into jelly. Apple peels were often baked with butter or bacon grease and a bit of sugar and served either alone or with cream for a dessert.
Grits were daily fare. It was cheap, delicious, and filling. Mamas would cook them with salt and butter though some prefer sugar over salt. Leftovers would be set to congeal, then sliced and fried. They might be served plain or with gravy or syrup. Hard times didn’t mean food had to taste bad. Girls were raised knowing how to cook and that enabled them to feed their families well.
The last green tomatoes of Summer were often turned into pie. Most anything could be made into pie. From milk pie to vinegar pie, pinto bean pie to cracker pie, buttermilk pie to sugar pie, good cooks knew how to take simple inexpensive ingredients and turn them into a delicious home baked treat for weary bodies to indulge in. Even water could be turned into a pie and it was. Water pie is a Depression era treat that mamas and grandmas turned to when little else was available.
Flour could be turned into anything from gravy to crackers to bread. Leftover bread could be turned into French toast, milk toast, cinnamon toast, bread soup, or bread salad. Biscuits were everyday fare and were served with jam, sugar or syrup, used for sopping, served with gravy, or made into bread pudding. Leftover biscuits, stuffed with sugar if nothing else was available, were sent with husbands and children for lunch. Cornmeal was made into sawmill gravy, made into hoecakes, and even cakes or cookies. Cornbread was also a daily bread and was used for sopping, served with milk or buttermilk in a glass, and leftovers were made into dressing.
Simple suppers such as beans and cornbread, beans with sliced onion and tomatoes, soup that was more broth than vegetable and bread, biscuits and whatever could stuff them or served with gravy, or potato dumplings got them through the darkest hard times when the larder ran bare.
Ah, yes, potato dumplings. Few seem to know about them anymore but I grew up eating them. They are a Southern specialty that was born of hard times. Mama would peel some potatoes and cut them into thick, long pieces which she’d then boil. When they were quite soft, she’d take them out and lay them aside to drain. She make her dumplings and drop them into the salted and peppered boiling potato water. Dumplings can more simple or more complicated; they be made out of just flour and water if need be. She’d then take the potatoes and fry them in some bacon grease, salting and peppering as they browned. She’d have saved some of the dumpling dough and, once the potatoes were up, she’d plop the dough in small scoops into the hot grease and fry until done, turning as needed. The dumplings, browned potatoes, and fried biscuits might not have been the healthiest of foods but they filled many a hungry tummy on a hard, cold, Winter’s night when little or no other food was available. Just being able to eat is healthy eating if the only other option is starvation.
Folks would fry just about anything that could be fried. From edible flowers to tomatoes, from eggplants to corn nuggets, from squash to cucumbers, you might find it battered and fried. Due to the delicious taste and the inexpensive cost, fried foods often served as meat substitutes.
Home canned tomatoes might be served out of the jar with crackers, added to a soup, made into gravy, mixed with bread and a little sugar and heated, thickened and seasoned and then dropped into hot fat and fried, or even made into a cake.
Greens of all kinds were boiled and served with cornbread.
The point of all of this isn’t to copy what my grandparents and others down South did but that we need to learn to make do and be content with the blessings we have. Hard times can either defeat us or we can rise to the occasion. My family chose to rise. Yours can, too.
The Lord is gracious. Every bite we eat is given to us by Him. Every breath we take, we take because He wills it. The food He provides for us, be it humble or be it grand, it a gift. We’re called to be stewards of the gifts He’s given to us. May we all learn to wisely steward the food the Lord sees fit to put on our tables. Soli Deo Gloria!