20 Money-Saving Meals People Actually Ate In The 1920s and 1930s

By Sophia Maddox | March 28, 2024

Mulligan Stew

The Great Depression wreaked havoc on the United States between 1929 and 1941, leaving millions without jobs, money, and resources. Out of the growing need of the American public came some unique and even strange recipes. To keep food on the table with what little they had, families turned to unusual ingredients since some were not available. Check out the unusual foods people had to eat during the Great Depression, and you'll never complain about your mom's cooking again.


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Library of Congress

Though many call it Mulligan stew, some also know it as hobo stew due to its early roots. Food historians can trace it back to the early 1910s when migrant workers known as “hobos” began whipping it up with whatever they had on hand or could find. The dish also became known as community stew as groups of people shared their limited ingredients to make one big soup that could feed a crowd. Mulligan stew grew out of the idea that combining resources would create a dish that was better than anything one person could make on their own.

Since Mulligan stew changed based on who made it, it doesn't have a specific recipe. It usually consists of root vegetables like potatoes and carrots and some meat. While recipes today call for chuck roast or other large cuts, during the Great Depression, squirrel and possum were quite common.

Creamed Chip Beef

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You can walk into any grocery store today and find packets of creamed chip beef ready to go, but it wasn't as readily available during the Great Depression. During the early 20th century, the military started making this dish because it was cheap and easy to prepare. Military cooks could easily make a batch large enough to feed a crowd. The “Manual for Army Cooks” from 1910 even included a recipe that made 60 servings. Once the soldiers returned home, they started requesting it from their wives and mothers. Soldiers nicknamed the dish SOS.

Also known as creamed chipped beef, it's a simple and filling dish that consists of salted and dried beef cooked in a thin, white gravy. Usually made from beef round or similar cuts, it uses one of the cheapest cuts of meat. Great Depression cooks often cured the meat at home and used farm milk.