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8 Curious Recipes From the Depression Era

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According to historians, modern society can learn a lot from the myriad ways people put food on the table during the Great Depression. While some people raised livestock and grew their own fruits and vegetables, others had to stretch every dollar and pinch every penny to get the most food for their buck during hard economic times. Here are eight recipes that might seem strange today but were regular features at mealtime in the Depression Era. For more recipes from that time, pick up A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.

1. POOR MAN'S MEAL

During the Great Depression, potatoes and hot dogs were very inexpensive, so many meals included either or both ingredients. In this video, 91-year-old Clara—who lived through the Depression—walks viewers through the process of making the Poor Man’s Meal: peel and cube a potato, then fry it in a pan with oil and chopped onions until they brown and soften. Then add slices of hot dog, cook a few minutes more, and serve.

2. CREAMED CHIPPED BEEF

Made with dried and salted beef, Creamed Chipped Beef was an easy and cheap dish that originated in Eastern Pennsylvania Dutch Country, New Jersey, and the Mid-Atlantic. To make if yourself, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pot over a medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of flour to make a roux. Slowly whisk in 1.5 cups of milk until it thickens and boils. Later add 8 ounces of dried beef (like Hormel). Serve over toast.

Affectionately called S.O.S. (“Sh*t on a Shingle" or “Save Our Stomachs”), Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast was also a staple of the U.S. military during World War I and especially World War II.

3. HOOVER STEW

Hoovervilles—shantytowns that sprang up during the Depression—weren't the only things named after our 31st president, who had the misfortune to be elected just before the Crash. Hoover Stew was the name given to the soup from soup kitchens or similarly thin broths. One recipe calls for cooking a 16-ounce box of noodles like macaroni or spaghetti. While that's on the stove, slice hot dogs into round shapes. Drain the pasta when it’s almost done and return to the pot; drop in the sliced hot dogs. Add two cans of stewed tomatoes and one can of corn or peas (with liquid) to the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer until the pasta is finished cooking. No need to use corn or peas; you can substitute those veggies for anything canned and inexpensive.

4. EGG DROP SOUP

Here's Clara's recipe for Egg Drop Soup: Peel and dice a potato and an onion. Slowly brown them in a pot with oil until soft, then add bay leaves and salt and pepper. Once browned, add half a pot of water to the mix to make broth. Simmer on the stove and add more salt and pepper to taste until the potatoes are cooked. While boiling, crack two eggs into the pot and stir until scrambled. Add two more eggs into the soup, so the yolk hardens. Add cheese to finish it off. Once completed, serve the Egg Drop Soup over toast.

5. CORNED BEEF LUNCHEON SALAD

In the 1930s, gelatin was considered a modern, cutting edge food. Dishes like Corned Beef Luncheon Salad—which consisted of canned corned beef, plain gelatin, canned peas, vinegar, lemon juice, and occasionally cabbage—were very popular and inexpensive to make. According to Andy Coe, the co-author of A Square Meal, the recipe was just "wrong in every possible way" when compared with today’s modern tastes and palate.

6. FROZEN FRUIT SALAD

Served during the holiday season as a special treat, Frozen Fruit Salad was made with canned fruit cocktail (or your favorite canned fruit), egg yolks, honey, and whipping cream.

7. SPAGHETTI WITH CARROTS AND WHITE SAUCE

One of the dishes Eleanor Roosevelt recommended and promoted with the development of Home Economics in schools and colleges during the Great Depression was Spaghetti with Boiled Carrots and White Sauce. It was spaghetti cooked until mushy (about 25 minutes) and mixed with boiled carrots. The white sauce was made from milk, flour, salt, butter or margarine, and a little bit of pepper. After mixing, pour into a tray and bake to make a casserole.

8. PRUNE PUDDING

Although he had a taste for fancy meals, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was served a humble seven-and-a-half-cent lunch, which included deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, coffee, and, for dessert, prune pudding. Roosevelt’s White House ate modestly in “an act of culinary solidarity with the people who were suffering,” Jane Ziegelman, the co-author of A Square Meal, told The New York Times.

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Food
Brine Time: The Science Behind Salting Your Thanksgiving Turkey
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At many Thanksgiving tables, the annual roast turkey is just a vehicle for buttery mash and creamy gravy. But for those who prefer their bird be a main course that can stand on its own without accoutrements, brining is an essential prep step—despite the fact that they have to find enough room in their fridges to immerse a 20-pound animal in gallons of salt water for days on end. To legions of brining believers, the resulting moist bird is worth the trouble.

How, exactly, does a salty soak yield juicy meat? And what about all the claims from a contingency of dry brine enthusiasts: Will merely rubbing your bird with salt give better results than a wet plunge? For a look at the science behind each process, we tracked down a couple of experts.

First, it's helpful to know why a cooked turkey might turn out dry to begin with. As David Yanisko, a culinary arts professor at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, tells Mental Floss, "Meat is basically made of bundles of muscle fibers wrapped in more muscle fibers. As they cook, they squeeze together and force moisture out," as if you were wringing a wet sock. Hence the incredibly simple equation: less moisture means more dryness. And since the converse is also true, this is where brining comes in.

Your basic brine consists of salt dissolved in water. How much salt doesn't much matter for the moistening process; its quantity only makes your meat and drippings more or less salty. When you immerse your turkey in brine—Ryan Cox, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, quaintly calls it a "pickling cover"—you start a process called diffusion. In diffusion, salt moves from the place of its highest concentration to the place where it's less concentrated: from the brine into the turkey.

Salt is an ionic compound; that is, its sodium molecules have a positive charge and its chloride molecules have a negative charge, but they stick together anyway. As the brine penetrates the bird, those salt molecules meet both positively and negatively charged protein molecules in the meat, causing the meat proteins to scatter. Their rearrangement "makes more space between the muscle fibers," Cox tells Mental Floss. "That gives us a broader, more open sponge for water to move into."

The salt also dissolves some of the proteins, which, according to the book Cook's Science by the editors of Cook's Illustrated, creates "a gel that can hold onto even more water." Juiciness, here we come!

There's a catch, though. Brined turkey may be moist, but it can also taste bland—infusing it with salt water is still introducing, well, water, which is a serious flavor diluter. This is where we cue the dry briners. They claim that using salt without water both adds moisture and enhances flavor: win-win.

Turkey being prepared to cook.
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In dry brining, you rub the surface of the turkey with salt and let it sit in a cold place for a few days. Some salt penetrates the meat as it sits—with both dry and wet brining, Cox says this happens at a rate of about 1 inch per week. But in this process, the salt is effective mostly because of osmosis, and that magic occurs in the oven.

"As the turkey cooks, the [contracting] proteins force the liquid out—what would normally be your pan drippings," Yanisko says. The liquid mixes with the salt, both get absorbed or reabsorbed into the turkey and, just as with wet brining, the salt disperses the proteins to make more room for the liquid. Only, this time the liquid is meat juices instead of water. Moistness and flavor ensue.

Still, Yanisko admits that he personally sticks with wet brining—"It’s tradition!" His recommended ratio of 1-1/2 cups of kosher salt (which has no added iodine to gunk up the taste) to 1 gallon of water gives off pan drippings too salty for gravy, though, so he makes that separately. Cox also prefers wet brining, but he supplements it with the advanced, expert's addition of injecting some of the solution right into the turkey for what he calls "good dispersal." He likes to use 1-1/2 percent of salt per weight of the bird (the ratio of salt to water doesn't matter), which he says won't overpower the delicate turkey flavor.

Both pros also say tossing some sugar into your brine can help balance flavors—but don't bother with other spices. "Salt and sugar are water soluble," Cox says. "Things like pepper are fat soluble so they won't dissolve in water," meaning their taste will be lost.

But no matter which bird or what method you choose, make sure you don't roast past an internal temperature of 165˚F. Because no brine can save an overcooked turkey.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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