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Not thankful for grocery prices? Tammy Swift writes how wartime cooks made turkey out of burger and clothespins

Don't despair when eyeing the high prices for this year's Thanksgiving. Instead, look back at the sacrifices our grandmas and great-grandmas made while cooking this expensive meal during wartime and the Great Depression. Tomato aspic salad, anyone?

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While Thanksgiving staples like pumpkin pie could cost up to 20% more this year, it's a good time to look back at how cooks made more with less during wartime and the Great Depression.
Forum archives
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FARGO — Boy, we all sure could use Aunt Sammy right now.

Back in the early years of the Great Depression, Aunt Sammy was the USDA’s take on Betty Crocker when that agency needed a thrift-minded “spokeswoman” to share household tips and affordable recipes with penny-pinching homemakers.

The fictional Aunt Sammy character — either Uncle Sam's sister or wife, depending on who you ask — became a respected nationwide fixture on a radio show titled “Housekeepers’ Chat” and also was credited with producing a wildly popular cookbook.

Now, with Thanksgiving strutting and fanning its feathers before us, one wonders if Aunt Sammy should return and start making educational TikToks. Especially with prices soaring for turkey, butter, eggs, canned goods and all the other holiday staples which are threatening to gobble up our grocery budgets.

The market research firm IRI estimates the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 at about $60.50, up from last year’s average cost of $53.31. That’s driven by many factors, including hot inflation , supply chain issues, a widespread bird flu outbreak and the war in Ukraine.

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But do not despair. This isn’t the first time that American cooks have had to scramble when the horn o’plenty looks more like a horn o’ barely.

The eras that immediately came to mind were the Great Depression, during which households lived off foods like “Hoover stew” (elbow macaroni, hot dogs and stewed tomatoes), and World War II, when food-rationing curbed sugar, meat, coffee, eggs, butter, cheese and even canned goods.

To put things in perspective, I found an article in the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise which listed the average cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for five in 1930 as $5.50. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $98.15 today!

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A reprint of "Aunt Sammy's Radio Recipes," originally printed by the USDA.
Contributed / USDA

No wonder Aunt Sammy was so popular. The Jazz Age Julia Child guided many homemakers through the challenges of a Depression-era Thanksgiving, suggesting that home cooks economize by boiling and then roasting “an old hen” instead of splurging on a turkey. Another holiday recommendation was her “mock duck,” a flank steak spread with a stuffing of bread crumbs, then rolled up, tied, seared in fat and roasted.

According to a New York Times article, the army of USDA home economists who provided content for Aunt Sammy encouraged listeners to replace labor-intensive oyster stew — once a holiday staple — with “a simple tomato cocktail.”

Molded gelatin salads also became popular, as homemakers were encouraged to suspend everything from apples to cabbage in a shimmering translucent sculpture of collagen.

Home cooks were encouraged to rely on the convenience of the new canned vegetables (“better than fresh!” Aunt Sammy raved) to prepare holiday side dishes.

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Cooks were encouraged to buy canned goods during the Depression but then advised to grow their own vegetables during the war. The reason: The government needed to save processed, easy-to-ship foods to send to the troops.
Forum archives

Among the much-ballyhooed canned wonders was cranberry sauce. Known today as the ruby-colored glop that retains the perfect shape of a tin can, home economists of the 1930s considered this new convenience food to be the height of culinary chic. “No more need to fret and fuss,” The Boston Globe gushed in 1936. “Use the canned cranberry sauce which slides out of the can in a solid shimmering mold, tempting enough to please the most exacting housewife.”

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Granted, many of Aunt Sammy’s budget-minded recipes would never fly today, as most modern diners cringe at the thought of creamed celery or jellied veal.

Even so, Aunt Sammy did succeed in helping a nation of households budget smarter and eat better.

Mealtime at wartime

Just a few years later, American cooks faced more food shortages due to war-time rationing.

According to an article in The Atlantic, most Americans were patriotic enough to use the ration booklets they were issued, even if they weren’t thrilled about it.

With the scarcity of the Great Depression still fresh in their minds (and bellies), people weren’t anxious to surrender a full pantry and stocked icebox, wrote Adee Braun in The Atlantic.

The war had revived the U.S. economy and cemented the notion that food was a barometer of American wealth.
Adee Braun, The Atlantic

The rationing started with sugar in May 1942, but was followed by coffee in November. That was followed by meats, fats, canned fish, cheese and canned milk in March 1943, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

“Macaroni and cheese became a nationwide sensation because it was cheap, filling and required very few ration points,” the museum’s website writes.

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Wartime ads like these encouraged consumers to try soy products as a protein source.
Forum archives

Indeed, while leafing through Forum archives from the time, I found a strange juxtaposition of capitalism wrestling with patriotism. Among the columns telling homemakers how to “stretch out your coffee” or to donate their used cooking grease to make munitions, ads from local grocery stores depicted cartoon turkeys dressed as grocers and enthusiastically proffering grocery bags stuffed with food. Another ad showed a pilgrim so tubby that he obviously ate off everyone else’s plate at the first Thanksgiving.

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Grocery ads encouraged cooks to stock up for the holiday.
Forum archives

By the fall of 1943, the ads were just as big, although they now mentioned rationing: “For a point-free Thanksgiving dinner, shop at National Food Stores!”

In spite of these sometimes confusing messages, home cooks sacrificed plenty.

Innovative cooks did everything they could to make plain ingredients seem posh, according to the Wall Street Journal. Among their inventions were Sausage Cornuts (sausage and corn flakes), bologna with gingersnap sauce and “emergency steak” — wheat cereal mixed with a pound of hamburger and patted into the shape of a T-bone steak.

“Mock” foods reigned. Mock Pâté de Foie Gras was actually beef liver and horseradish; Mock Veal Cutlets were sculpted from peas and salted peanuts.

There was even a “turkey” made of meatloaf, with legs formed by wrapping ground meat around clothespins.

Instead of butter, cooks tried to make do with a substitute made from milk, mayo, margarine and gelatin.

As sugar was limited to 1 cup per person each week, families would hoard sugar or pool it with other family members so they could make special treats like holiday cookies. Cooks also relied on honey, molasses or corn syrup to sweeten their pies, cakes and goodies.

“Some folks would save their ration stamps for the holidays and use innovative techniques to create the perfect meal,” according to DDay.org, the website of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. “Ironically, even though chicken and other birds were not rationed, finding a turkey for your own table was quite a chore since many of the birds were shipped overseas for the servicemen.”

Back in the day, US soldiers were well-fed on holidays. In 1943, two liberty ships were jam-packed with Thanksgiving supplies and sent overseas to the soldiers, according to DDay.org. Entire meals — including turkey, all the trimmings, cranberry sauce and even pies — traveled throughout the European and Pacific theaters, all the way to the frontlines, according to DDay.org.

In Fargo, Forum articles encouraged families to invite single servicemen into their homes so they wouldn’t need to spend the holiday alone.

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A deLendrecie's ad from the 1940s reminds people to be thankful even during hard times.
Forum archives

Another article from 1942 urged Thanksgiving hostesses to maintain their hospitality even if they had to cut back on the food: “When guests drop in at your house for a brief visit during the holidays, be prepared to serve light refreshments as you always have. But instead of the elaborate horn of plenty, expensive punches and delicacies, conform to war-time economy without sacrificing the pleasantries of pre-war entertaining."

The writer also recommends “a simple buffet attractively arranged” with “fruits, nuts and bottled carbonated beverages.”

(Try telling that to Uncle Otis, who never left a potluck without taking three helpings of everything and filling his wife’s purse with mashed potatoes.)

Below, we’ve attached some of the stranger Thanksgiving dishes concocted by creative home cooks during times of food shortages and financial hardship.

While you may not race to the kitchen to make Tomato Aspic anytime soon, you may like (as I did) the more current recipe for Eggless Pumpkin Pie. The recipe was recommended by Kathleen Keene of Moorhead, who celebrates a vegan potluck Thanksgiving with friends and family every year.

Mock Duck

From "Aunt Sammy's Radio Recipes"

Flank steak, weighing 2-3 pounds
1 ½ cups stale bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 onion, minced
½ cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons butter or ¼ cup finely chopped salt pork

Brown celery and onion lightly in fat. Then mix the ingredients with a fork. Spread the stuffing over the steak. Roll the steak crosswise and tie it in 2-3 places with clean string. By rolling it crosswise the meat will be carved across the grain and slices will be more tender.

Roll the outside of the mock duck in flour, then sear the surface in fat in a baking pan. Add more flour if necessary, so there will be enough for brown gravy. When the meat is thoroughly seared on all sides, add a cup of water, cover closely and cook till tender. This takes about 1 ½ hours.

When meat is done, mix 2 tablespoons of fat with an equal amount of flour, add the liquid from the pan, and enough water to make as much gravy as needed.

If the steak had fat on it, there may be enough fat and also flour in the pan to make the gravy without adding any more.

Tomato Aspic Salad

From "Aunt Sammy's Radio Recipes"

1 ½ envelopes or 3 tablespoons gelatin
1 quart canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon finely chopped green pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 cup very finely shredded cabbage
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon onion juice
½ teaspoon sugar

Soak the gelatin in a small quantity of water. Boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes and strain through a fine sieve to remove the seeds. Pour the hot tomato juice over the gelatin and stir until dissolved. Add salt and sugar and chill. When the gelatin mixture is partly set, add the finely shredded vegetables and mix well. Add more salt if needed. If mixture isn’t tart enough, add a little lemon juice or vinegar. Pour into wet custard cups and put in the cold until set. Turn out onto a lettuce leaf and serve with mayonnaise.

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While Thanksgiving staples like pumpkin pie could cost up to 20 percent more this year, it's a good time to look back at how cooks made more with less during wartime and the Great Depression.
Tammy Swift / The Forum

Eggless Pumpkin Pie

From: Noracooks.com

1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
1 cup coconut cream
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 unbaked pie crust

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a pie crust in a 9-inch pie pan.
  2. Add the canned pumpkin, coconut cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, salt and cornstarch to a blender and blend until very smooth.
  3. Pour mixture into crust. Even out mixture with spatula.
  4. Bake for 1 hour. If the crust starts to burn, cover the edges of the crust with aluminum foil or a pie shield after about 30 minutes. The middle will still look jiggly; that's normal. Let cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then cover and transfer to the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
  5. Slice and serve with whipped topping. 

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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