Depression cooking: Frugal and fulfilling

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Recently, as cost-saving measures have forced more and more families to cut back on their food expenditures, "Depression cooking" has found fresh relevance. All too often, however, thrifty home chefs confuse the emotion with the era, and seem to come to the conclusion that reduced finances must equate to culinary suffering.

This could not be further from the truth. As any student of history will attest, some of the best -- and most popular -- culinary masterpieces came from meager times and downtrodden places. After all, while it is not hard to make a delicious meal out of beef tenderloin, coaxing a culinary masterpiece out of a bony shank or a simple plate of biscuits is both more difficult and more emotionally satisfying.

The Great Depression's most famous scribe, John Steinbeck, is known for his impassioned novels about social justice. However, one of his most beautiful and poetic pieces, "Breakfast," features a lone wanderer coming upon a group of migrant laborers who are preparing for a day's work picking cotton. The morning is "cold, not painfully so, but cold enough so that I rubbed my hands and shoved them deep in my pockets, and I hunched my shoulders up and shuffled my feet on the ground," and the small family -- a young woman, a young man, and an older man -- invite the stranger to breakfast:

When the smell of that hot bread came out, both of the men inhaled deeply. The young man said softly, "Keerist!" [...] The girl set out the platter of bacon, the brown high biscuits, a bowl of bacon gravy and a pot of coffee, and then she squatted down by the box, too. [...]We filled out our plates, poured bacon gravy over our biscuits and sugared our coffee. The older man filled his mouth full and he chewed and chewed and swallowed. Then he said, "God Almighty, it's good," and he filled his mouth again.

Looking back, the narrator says "This thing fills me with pleasure. I don't know why, I can see it in the smallest detail. I find myself recalling it again and again, each time bringing more detail out of sunken memory, remembering brings the curious warm pleasure."

This short story demonstrates several key aspect of Depression cooking: the use of cheap ingredients, the value of starches as fillers, and the fact that a chef's care and affection can go a long way toward transforming humble ingredients into a great meal.

Regarding the first principle, the simple biscuits and bacon use meat as an accent for cheaper, grain-based fare. The same general concept applies to most low-cost cooking. For example, the now-famous Clara (of Depression cooking fame) uses a great deal of potatoes and other humble ingredients in her dishes, strongly downplaying meat.

Similarly, some of the best-known European regional dishes, including Cassoulet, Choucroute Garnie, and even the ubiquitous Irish stew, basically use cheap grains and starches to stretch expensive meats. Whether the filler is rice, pasta, beans, potatoes, or cabbage, the pairing of an low-cost filler and a pricey meat gives the cook a lot of room to play with spices and flavors, expressing creativity while preparing a reasonably-priced meal.

This doesn't even have to take a great deal of time. For example, even without making a full Choucroute, or even the extravagant pork shoulder and sauerkraut combo in this video, one can put together an easy pork-and-sauerkraut peasant dish. Popular in small towns from Poland to Pennsylvania, this combo is simple, cheap, and leaves a lot of room for personal creativity.

Basically, cut 1-2 pounds of pork roast into 2" cubes. Sear over olive oil in a dutch oven until lightly browned on all sides. Add 2 pounds of drained sauerkraut, 1/2 cup of chicken stock, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/4 cup apple cider, and two cored, peeled, and thinly sliced apples. Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until pork is fork tender, lowering heat if it reaches a rolling boil and adding additional water if it starts to get dry. Depending on your tastes (and the spices on hand), you can add bay leaves, cloves, juniper berries, brown sugar, extra vinegar, or whatever strikes your fancy.

While the pork is cooking, relax with a book and let the smell fill the apartment. When the dish is ready, serve with coarse bread and a hearty mustard. If you have a good beer on hand, crack it open; if not, pour yourself a glass of water or cider. This dish refrigerates well, and can be easily reheated at work. Enjoy!

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