Money-Saving Main Dishes is a 1966 booklet published by the United States Department of Agriculture. At forty-six pages it’s more than a pamphlet but not quite an honest cookbook, and contains around a hundred and fifty recipes. The booklet is printed on sturdy white paper with royal blue ink and no cover. There are no photographs inside but recipes are clearly formatted and handsomely arranged along with simple monochrome illustrations. It’s marked as “Home and Garden Bulletin No. 43”, part of an ongoing USDA series that’s published as recently as 2011. The Home and Garden Bulletins cover diverse topics from nutrition to selecting good meat and produce to dealing with invasive species in your garden. Money-Saving Main Dishes is one of only a few cookbooks in the series.
I happened across my copy of Money-Saving Main Dishes in a mystery box of vintage cookbooks from ebay. The copy I own was originally distributed by one William M. McCulloch to one of his constituents in the 4th district of Ohio, likely in the runup to the 1968 election. McCulloch is perhaps best known for his leadership role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a fierce opponent of President Johnson’s Great Society. The relationship, if any, to McCulloch’s political positions are unclear. Americans without the good fortune to receive the booklet from their Congressperson could order one directly from the U.S. Government Printing Office for twenty cents plus shipping, a little under $2 in 2022 money. These days the booklet is available in its entirety online at the USDA website.
The purpose of the booklet is to encourage Americans to get enough protein. Most of the recipes are designed to provide enough protein to fulfill a quarter of the recommended adult requirement, with an eye towards economical protein sources. Individual recipes are supplemented by meal plans or suggested sides to boost protein requirements further. The accompaniments are quite creative, and run the gamut from cottage cheese salads to peanut butter cookies. Meal planning follows the now-defunct guidance to choose foods from each of the four food groups.
The recipes are primarily focused on animal products, with individual chapters for different types of meat and dairy. Compared to contemporary cookbooks there is much more emphasis on lamb, veal, and “variety meats”, such as liver and kidney. There is an entire chapter devoted to canned meats, the recipes in the seafood chapter rely on canned salmon, sardines, or frozen fish sticks. A few call for frozen fish fillets, but there’s not a single seafood recipe that calls exclusively for fresh fish. None of this is surprising, and represent both generational differences in ingredient availability and the post-war infatuation with convenience.
In addition to the meat chapters, there are also chapters on whole grains and beans. These chapters include a warning that plant-based proteins are “not of as high quality as proteins as animal products.” In the strictest sense this is still correct, with animal products providing proteins with balanced amounts of all nine essential amino acids. In the intervening years new learning on health risks from meat consumption, as well as improved availability of high-quality plant proteins (esp. soy products) has allowed the USDA to demur to vegetarians. These days the “meat group” is the “protein group”, and includes both soy products as well as nuts and seeds. And, truth be told, the utter volume of food that modern Americans consume ensures that they won’t be deficient in any one amino acid. Vegans are still out of luck – the USDA still recommends so many servings of dairy per day – but one suspects that a twenty-first century revision of Money-Saving Main Dishes would focus much less on meat.
As a short aside, I found this statistic fascinating:
In the United States [in 1966] nearly half of the protein in the national diet comes from the meat group. About a fifth comes from bread and other cereal foods. And the milk group provides about a fourth.
All other legumes and vegetable proteins, then, seem to account for around five percent of protein consumption. More fascinating, this statistic still holds today (see studies in the 1990s and 2010s ), despite dramatic differences in shopping and eating habits. While there has been increasing acceptance of vegetarian and vegan diets , this “less meat” trend seems to be counterbalanced by the popularity protein-heavy diets (keto, paleo, Atkins, etc.)
Meat-Potatoburgers is a recipe that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Money-Saving Main Dishes (1966). Judging by name alone I was expecting Meat-Potatoburgers to resemble certain Depression-era burgers, like the Mississippi slugburger or Oklahoma Onion Burger. There are any number of regional variants, many of which are still available if you know where to look, but the common theme to all of them is padding the ground beef with an inexpensive filler. This can be anything from ground pork to bread crumbs to onions and soy flour, with the intent of stretching a meal for two to feed four or five or six. They are the burger equivalent of adding a cup of water to the soup, but not what the USDA was after with this recipe. Instead, Meat-Potatoburgers are more like mini-meatloaves, thick tomato-soaked cakes that are both too big and too crumbly to be served on a bun. They work kind of like a cheap Salisbury steak.
Preparation is straightforward. Ground beef is mixed with a healthy portion of grated onion, shredded potatoes, and chopped green peppers, then simply seasoned. The beef is rolled into large balls, then gently smashed to form generously sized patties about an inch and a half thick. Patties are pan fried to brown up the outside, then simmered in plain tomato sauce until cooked through. I’ve made a few adjustments to the original recipe. The original recipe wants you to cook the burgers in “fat or drippings”, which is entirely unnecessary. Unless you’re using extra-extra-extra lean ground beef, there will be plenty of fat to brown the burgers and lend substance to the sauce. The other major change I’ve made is to omit flour, which is used in a slurry to thicken the resulting tomato sauce. I know from past experience that no good can come from this. A little bit of flour or starch might reasonably be used to thicken a tomato-based gravy, but adding them to a thick puree gives it both a gluey texture and colors it an unappetizing salmon pink. Turns out the tomato sauce thickens up just fine on its own. The only other changes are simple ones to suit my tastes: I’ve replaced green bell peppers with mild Anaheim peppers, which are much more palatable and have better texture when cooked. I’ve also added some garlic salt to punch up the flavor a bit.
The end result is a moist, handsomely portioned hamburger steak with a built-in pan sauce. Money-Saving Main Dishes recommends serving it with “mashed or buttered squash and apple-celery-raisin salad.” On a colder evening I would have gone for the squash, but egg noodles and a simple butter lettuce salad were better suited for a warm, late summer evening. Don’t expect a spaghetti-and-meatballs vibe; the Meat-Potatoburgers recipe won’t make quite enough sauce to dress the pasta but the noodles can help sop up what’s left over. Any simple starch and green vegetable would work fine: boiled potatoes and spinach, white rice and green peas, etc. Enjoy!
- Add all ingredients except for the tomato puree to a large bowl. Combine well by hand, as you would for meatloaf. Shape into six 6 oz balls.
- (Optional) Toss the balls back and forth from hand to hand a dozen times. You want to use enough force to get a satisfying slapping sound and aerate the meat balls.
- Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Arrange the meat balls in the skillet and let them sizzle for a minute or two, then gently smash until each of the patties are just barely touching. Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes until the bottom is nicely browned and the meat balls release easily from the bottom of the skillet. Flip meat balls (which should now look more like thick patties) and fry for 3-4 minutes more.
- Pour tomato puree over top. Bring to a slow boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer 20-25 minutes until Meat-Potatoburgers are cooked through.
You can find more recipes from Money-Saving Main Dishes here.