I must have inherited my copy of Patricia Wagner’s Depression Era Recipes from my grandmother. She was in grade school during the Great Depression and had a small collection of what I can only describe as “hard times” books with titles like We Had Everything But Money. They were probably mail-ordered from a catalog or magazine ad and usually have an amateurish, vanity publisher quality to them.
And Depression Era Recipes fits right in. It’s a small spiral-bound volume that looks like it came from a church group or Rotary club fundraiser. The cover art is simple and stylish. Recipe text is peppered with simple illustrations and some black and white reproductions of vintage 1930s advertisements. But appearance can be deceiving, I guess. Despite the basic presentation this book got six printings in the first six years of publication and is still in print over thirty years later. This appears to be a passion project that caught fire. Wagner started out compiling recipes from family and friends and turned it into a minor hit.
Readers looking for Hoover Stew or vinegar pie may be disappointed; this is a collection of treasured family recipes rather than improvised dishes. There’s certainly an undercurrent of austerity and simplicity, but this is hardly a voyeur’s collection of poverty cuisine. For every hamburger stew or soup there’s a healthy helping of special occasion recipes for beef stews
Truth be told this book has more value as a time capsule than a cookbook. The recipes are fascinating, but not really tuned for the twenty-first century kitchen. Modern cooks will want to spruce these recipes up a bit. Besides salt, pepper, and the occasional bay leaf there’s not much in the way of herbs and seasonings. (Unexpected exception: a handful of recipes call for curry powder) There’s also a heavy emphasis on game meats or mutton that may not be readily available, plus a couple of recipes that involve squirrel or raccoon. The section on homemade cleaners and household products is terribly entertaining, but I probably won’t be making my own ant poison anytime soon.
One of the more bizarre entries in Depression Era Recipes is “Peanut Soup”. It’s probably the one that comes closest to the hardscrabble improvisation that the title suggests, and it’s a stretch to even call it a recipe: it’s just peanut butter mixed with boiling water, salt and pepper to taste, and a little swirl of canned milk before serving. It comes recommended as a “very nourishing soup” that “children are especially fond of”.
Nourishing or not, it’s depressingly unattractive – the consistency of canned tomato soup but an off-putting light tan color. The pictures I took were terrible, so I will regale you with an AI rendering of the recipe. It is much more attractive.
And while I’m not going to pretend it’s a hidden culinary gem, it’s surprisingly not awful. I guess this isn’t surprising: it’s got fat and protein and a creamy texture: all the components of a good, hearty winter soup. I wouldn’t recommend rolling this out for company, but with a few extra ingredients it becomes a nice palate cleanser or high protein snack.
I’ve provided two options to dress up Peanut Soup. The first adds a little bit of acid and smoky heat, stealing some cues from Thai and North African cuisine. The other adds a sweet balsamic vinaigrette and fragrant fresh herbs.
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For the soup:
- 3/ cup crunchy peanut butter
- 2 cups water
- salt and pepper (to taste)
- canned evaporated milk or heavy cream (until desired texture is achieved)
Accoutrements (option 1)
- juice from half a lime
- one dash merquen
- 2 tsp chopped garlic chives
Accoutrements (option 2)
- one splash good quality extra virgin olive oil
- one splash good quality balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp chopped tarragon
- Bring water to a boil. Add peanut butter and boil briefly until peanut butter "melts". Whisk vigorously to mix.
- Serve in small bowls, adding canned evaporated milk, salt, and pepper until desired taste and consistency is achieved.
- For a spicy kick, add a dash of merquen and lime juice - stirring quickly while the soup to avoid curdling the milk. Garnish with chopped garlic chive.
- For a little bit of depth without the heat swirl in a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then top with chopped tarragon.
Merquen is a spiced chili blend from Chile. It’s readily available at well-stocked grocers or by mail-order. I’ve purchased Etnia brand Merquen from Amazon. Tuchileaqui is also an excellent resource for Chilean/Andean ingredients. If you can’t get your hands on Merquen then crushed red pepper, powdered chipotle, or Trader Joe’s South African Smoke Seasoning blend are all acceptable substitutes.
Garlic chives are available at Asian grocery stores, and some American supermarkets. They have a more subtle flavor than scallions but more of a kick than your standard chive. Either scallions or chives will do in a pinch, or feel free to omit them altogether.
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