Depression Era Vegetable Soup

My mother talked about survival those first years of her marriage–when money was extremely tight–she naturally thought about food. I imagine she spent a lot of time in the late 30s and early 40s thinking about food–what to put on the table. How to stretch it.

Grocery Store 1938

Photo of Ohio Grocery Store in 1938 taken by Ben Shanh for The Farm Security Administration. From site “Shorpy” that sells excellent historic prints.

Although, my father had kept his promise and got a steady job with the Federal Government Weather Bureau, she had given up teaching for a few years. Although the prices of food in this photo seem very low by today’s inflated standards, you have to remember that salaries were similarly very low. By 1938, Father was making $120 a month in his supervisory position over 80-280 clerical workers, an increase from his starting salary of $70 a month, working in the field with volunteer weather observers.

Paul Kaser at work

This newspaper article caption reads “Instruments and personnel of the extensive rainfall recording program of the Muskingum Climatic Center.” [part of the National Weather Bureau.] Among the pictures; “Paul Kaser, NYA Supervisor, explaining work to Ierta Rizzonelli…and Helen Fragasse…” Newspaper unidentified.

Mother said that on Friday nights, all the young marrieds would get together for a soup party.  Each couple would contribute whatever they could find in their refrigerator at the end of the week–it would all go in a pot–and they would pool their money to buy some rotgut whiskey to wash it down.

Since I’m not going to round up neighbors to contribute to a pot of soup, I thought I’d stick with the theme, by going through my own refrigerator and seeing what I came up with.  I think I’ll call it Rescued Vegetable Soup.


soup vegetables

Over the hill vegetables

I dumped the over-the-hill vegetables into the sink–half a cabbage that was turning black around the edges, an indestructible rutabaga, a parsnip that would go limp in a couple more days and potatoes that had sprouted, but were still solid to the touch. The last of a bag of carrots was beginning to look a little sad. I also found two uncooked hamburger patties in the freezer, and some green beans I had steamed a couple nights before.

I peeled all the vegetables and sliced or diced them. Parsnips, I have learned, take more time to cook than most of the root vegetables, so they get cut in smaller pieces.  Potatoes and rutabagas take roughly the same time. After I threw away the withered outer leaves, and trimmed the cut edge, I sliced the cabbage and set it aside to add next to last–with the already cooked green beans to go in last.

My only regret was that I didn’t have chickens to feed the scraps to–or a garden with a compost heap.  All that peeling and slicing left me with a quart of vegetable scraps that would have been reused back in the day.

I dumped all the pieces of the root veggies into a large pot with oil, along with some minced garlic, to brown briefly. (Note:I would have preferred to use bacon grease, but didn’t have any on hand.) When they were beginning to turn brown, I sprinkled them with salt and pepper and barely covered them with water. (Note: if I were in the Depression and had cooked a chicken lately, I might have some broth on hand, and I wouldn’t mind adding a 1/2 cup of wine leftover from the last party.) I simmered the vegetables on medium heat until I could stick a fork in the parsnip and rutabaga pieces.

Meanwhile, I crumbled the hamburger into a skillet and browned the pieces.

When the veggies were fork-tender, I added the hamburger and cabbage and a healthy few squirts of catsup for flavor and added enough water to partially cover the cabbage. I continued cooking on low heat. (Note:in Depression days, if I were living on a farm or growing my own vegetables, I would have canned tomatoes, tomato juice or homemade catsup.) I know that when she was first married in 1938, my mother did not have the extensive shelves of herbs and spices that I rely on today, so I decided to keep things simple–salt, pepper and catsup.

A few minutes before serving, I added the cooked green beans. I would have added a can of corn if I had any–but this time I did not have any on hand.

Vegetable Soup

Bowl of Rescued Vegetable Soup

And that is my Depression-era inspired Rescued Vegetable Soup.  Hearty and economical eating for a cold winter’s day.  My concoction made enough to fill two half-gallon jars, and other than the peeling of vegetables, took only about an hour and a half.

Take a look in your refrigerator and tell me what you would put in your Depression-era soup.

Note: The photos belong to me with the exception of the photo of the grocery store from the Shorpy website that specializes in historic photos. Visit that site for a wide range of fascinating historic pictures from the 1850s to the 1950s.

The newspaper picture is part of a newspaper clipping in the author’s possession.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 thoughts on “Depression Era Vegetable Soup

  1. Elizabeth Wilson Ballard

    Whatever was leftover from the week!

    Seriously, I would expect potatoes, cabbage, corn, probably some milk and butter because I may have a cow. I’m thinking Midwest, and it would be creamy, with lots of root veggies like beets, turnips, and/or rutabaga and their greens. Unless it was summer. Then corn and tomatoes.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.