Baked beans

The Great Depression lasted a decade, but its effects changed a generation. Echoing events of 2020, the Depression caused widespread unemployment and food shortages of meat, milk, and other pantry staples. Cooks during the unprecedented economic downturn learned eating simple meals without waste could stretch their dollar. The popularity of home gardens, foraging for food, and alternative recipes emerged as a way to work around high food costs of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products. Although 2020, fortunately, didn’t see the same long-term impacts as the 1930s, home cooking doesn’t appear to be going anywhere and Depression-era foods are making a comeback.

During the height of the pandemic, The New York Times reported empty shelves across the country and the inability of grocers to keep staple pantry items and fresh produce in stock. Essentials such as beans, rice, pasta, and peanut butter became hot commodities. Hot dog sales also spiked. Thanks to modern food shortages — and farmers being forced to destroy food — pared-down cooking habits are once again being embraced. Home cooks are turning to Depression-era foods made with affordable and shelf-stable ingredients to feed the whole family.

Stovetop baked beans

Heinz Baked Beans

Dinner couldn’t get simpler with old-fashioned baked beans. Beans are low-cost, filling, and can be bought in bulk. Stovetop baked beans are also super easy to make. Navy beans are a staple today during barbecues but are great year-round when you’re looking for a simple home-cooked meal. Celebrate Boston explains baked beans go back as far as the first Pilgrims, cooked the night before the Sabbath in order to avoid cooking or working on the holy day. The secret to a truly flavorful 1930’s Boston-style baked beans is the addition of bacon, honey, and molasses. The sweetened and bacon-flavored beans became synonymous with Boston because the city produced rum and had some extra molasses around as a result.

Baked beans aren’t fussy, so you can soak your own and start from scratch or, as was the popular option in the 1930s, use canned beans to cut down on time in the kitchen. You can even put your own spin on the Depression-era food if you don’t have certain sweeteners — or if you run out of bacon or fatback. You can add spices such as cayenne or a splash of beer. With stovetop baked beans you can choose your own adventure for a simple side dish or main event.

Depression-era wacky chocolate cake without butter or eggs

Chocolate cake from the Depression-era might be pared down with ingredients but doesn’t skimp on flavor. Recipes are close to what many chefs have embraced as vegan variations, meaning it’s a delicious alternative for frugal chefs and anyone with diet restrictions. Ann Arbor News explained milk, eggs, and butter were scarce or rationed, so home cooks became inventive. TODAY.com spoke to culinary expert Tracy Wilk about how many older cakes, such as the iconic red velvet, used oil instead of butter to stay cost-effective. In a typical recipe, butter keeps cake soft and tender thanks to its fat content. This prevents the gluten in flour from making the dessert tough. In other words, the fat keeps the cake moist.

In this Depression-era chocolate cake, vegetable oil is used for a similar effect but any neutral oil will work. As a bonus, the oil doesn’t need to be refrigerated and is dairy-free. Another big change is removing the eggs, which serve as a leavening agent to make the cake rise and give it shape. What do you do if you don’t have eggs? The wacky cake uses a combination of vinegar and baking soda to cause a volcano effect. With more cost-effective ingredients and a little innovation, you’ll still end up with a light and fluffy cake.