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How My Ancestors Fed Large Families During The Depression And Then The War Years

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

When I was young, I was intrigued by family history. I still am. I remember cooking with my maternal grandma, sometimes for hours, especially if we were making homemade ravioli, and as we worked, she would tell me about life before I was born.

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Sometimes, after cleaning up, she would pull out old photo albums and point out people and tell stories. All four of my grandparents were born in Brooklyn, NY. All my great grandparents were born in Italy.

Various family fun during the 70's and 80's.

Life was definitely very different back then in Brooklyn between the 1920's and the 19050's Both sides of my family left Brooklyn in 1960. My dad's family went to Queens and mom's family moved to Deer Park on Long Island. That's where I was born.

I had the good fortune of being a child when the country was prospering and my father, through very hard work, made his way up in his field, which afforded him a great salary. We weren't millionaires, but we were comfortable and then some. We wanted for nothing and food was plentiful. We lived in a big house on Long Island with a lot of land, my parents bought extra land, and had more rooms and bathrooms than we needed.

Left to right, top - maternal grandmother as a young girl, my dad's mom and my mom's mom, mom's mom sitting in our yard. Bottom - My mother's paternal grandmother - her dad's mom, my great grandmother. She never learned to speak English because she lived her whole life in an Italian section of Brooklyn once she came to America.

My grandparents all grew up in small three-room apartments in Brooklyn, their parents were all off the boat from Italy. How do you live in three rooms with two parents, seven or more kids and a bathroom in the hallway you had to share with other tenants! It boggled my mind.

What boggled me even further was how the parents found the time/privacy to keep making more and more babies!!!!!!! Birth control was not what it is today, and many were not educated in it. Hence, huge families. All my great grandparents lost children, it was common back then. They lost several. My grandparents would always say, "well seven (other number) of us made it to adulthood."

Grandma told me stories about the past all the time, but one afternoon, as I was again helping her make homemade ravioli, she told me about the Depression. My grandmother was born in 1919. The Depression started when she was 10 years old.

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Grandma said life was tough during the Depression (1929 - 1939) and the war years (WWII 1939 - 1945). That's almost 20 years of hardship. Though the USA didn't enter WWII until 1941, people here were still affected. Some of the effects were good, people got jobs for the war effort.

But there's always pros and cons. Other things were bad. You could only buy three pair of shoes a year and had to use ration stamps. Food was also rationed to ensure there was enough for both civilians and military and to keep prices from skyrocketing.

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So how did a woman almost 100 years ago feed a very large family when money was tight just before her husband's next paycheck? First off, she wasted nothing. (How my grandmother taught me to waste nothing - see what I do with the plastic bags.) If people back then where to see what we throw out without a care today, they would have a heart attack.

The price of food is skyrocketing today. See my new Inexpensive meals category.

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I thought back to the stories my grandmother told me and I put them to good use today. Like my great grandmothers and my grandmothers before me, I put a meal together using my imagination and ingenuity. I did not make a meal for 15 people, only for myself, but, I applied the same principles.

I opened the fridge. Yes, we need to go food shopping. It's the end of the month, a new check comes soon, so right now, the cupboards are a bit bare. What to make for lunch. I spotted the broccoli. I didn't want it to turn. I had to use it. So, my dish was planned around the broccoli.

  • I spotted the leftover white rice that I used in a dish over the weekend. Hmmmm.

  • Then I saw the leftover sauce I made for my gluten free pizza.

  • There were some white beans hanging around in a glass container.

This could be a meal. Take whatever you find in the fridge and the cabinets and throw it together. It comes out delicious.

  • I washed and chopped the broccoli and then used my steamer to cook it to desired tenderness

  • I plopped the beans into the rice.

  • I topped that with some sauce.

  • I added the broccoli and topped it off with parmesan cheese because cheese makes everything better.

I had lunch. In about 20 minutes! Whoo hoo. I did what my Grandma said they did years ago. I found stuff and made something.

Growing up, my mom made a dish that my dad's mom taught her to make. I can't spell it in Italian but it basically translated to something like "The Mess". Meaning, you made a mess, you just took ingredients and flung them into a big pot.

Minestra. My mom's had a lot more ingredients and it was delicious.

Mom made it simply to use up leftovers and because it was easy when she was busy. We LOVED it. It satisfied the family which consisted of my parents, myself and two siblings, a cousin my parents adopted, and my maternal grandparents who lived in the attached apartment I now live in.

I guess it was similar to minestra. Marcella Hazan, in her book "Marcella Cucina," describes minestra in this way: "When Italy was a poor country, minestra signified more than a dish - it was, for most of its people, the whole meal. Minestra was synonymous with survival."

When we first moved into our current house in 1972 having moved from Deer Park, we had the olive fridge.

Mom threw everything she found in the fridge into a pot. Rather than throw out a small amount of leftovers, she saved them One porkchop, two pieces of sausage, a little bit of steak from Saturday's barbecue, a few chicken legs. She would slice meats into small pieces, throw in potatoes and pasta or rice, any veggies hanging around the fridge, leftover escarole that was a side dish to the steak, beans and just about anything she wanted. It never came out the same way twice.

She used a HUGE pot that we teased her she could feed an army with. The meal simmered a few hours and we ate it with Italian bread. We ate it because we LOVED it, but years ago, when you had a lot of mouths to feed, you put up a pot of this and fed your family of 12 or more. Nothing was wasted, it somehow got used.

Simple Beans on Toast This is similar to what my husband's grandmother would make.

My husband's grandmother had 7 kids. The family lived in Brooklyn in the same area my family lived - my husband is 100% Italian descent the same as I am. Only his grandparents came from Italy, he's 3rd generation American. His mother spoke fluent Italian. My dad can understand and speak a little, but it was my grandparents who spoke it fluently I'm fourth generation, because my great grandparents came from Italy.

Italian markets where all over the country but especially prevalent in New York.

When he was a child, his grandparents lived with his aunt and uncle, who adopted him, here on Long Island. The moved from the city in the early 70's. His uncle built a business worth 3 million dollars. Yet, what did the family ask Grandma to make? The meal she used to make years ago when she had a lot of mouths to feed and not enough money.

She would send one of her kids to the corner store in Brooklyn to buy day old Italian bread. She'd cook and season beans and put it on top of the hard, stale bread. The beans softened it. That was dinner. It kept them alive and their bellies full.

My husband and his cousins considered it a treat. To them, it was just something yummy Grandma made. To her, back in the day, it was survival.

Funny how this has passed down through the generations. My son loves to cook. He made an Instagram post saying he wasn't sure what he was making. But it came out good! He just found stuff and threw it together. Great Great grandma would be proud.

With the price of food going up and up, we will have to get creative and learn not to waste anything.

There's an old saying my mother would say when we were kids. "Necessity is the root of invention." How true it is. The most amazing recipes, dishes we love today, that are now served in restaurants daily, were created out of the sheer necessity to feed a lot of mouths, fill a lot of bellies and stay alive.

My grandmother would always say, "you kids have no idea what hardship is." She was right. Luckily, by the time we were born, our parents, third generation Americans, were able to prosper. We may have had it "easy" but my parents didn't believe in spoiling or raising ungrateful children. Nothing was handed to us. We all had to help clean, cook, and work as a family from a young age. We all started earning our money at age 12, babysitting. By 16, we were told to get part-time jobs and keep up our grades and we did.

I still believe in hard work. I raised my kids the same way. They both worked in McDonalds at age 14. Today they have successful careers and aren't afraid of hard work to succeed.

There was no privilege in this family. Italians were discriminated against for years. My great grandparents and grandparents and parents lived through it. Even I was subject to it in my 20's, especially when travelling down South.

My family didn't complain, we worked, generally 6 days a week, sometimes 12 hour days. And those before me invented, meals and other necessities, to keep their families going.

Yes, there was the stereotypical mafia, and some of my ancestors participated. But there were people of all nationalities doing bad things and others of all nationalities working hard and building a new life in America.

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