Food lessons from the Great Depression

Today, learning how to cook on a budget is becoming important to more families. In the 1930s, making do was a kitchen art, honed by necessity. Sour grass soup, anyone?

At a time when Americans face frightening and disorienting economic uncertainty, the Great Depression provides valuable lessons. For many people, putting a meal on the table without turning to processed or takeout foods is no longer something just for a weekend dinner party but a skill they must learn. People who remember what it was like to eat during the Depression talk about thrift, growing their own, sharing with neighbors and learning to cope with what they had.

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Home Solutions for Hard Times

Learning from the past to live a more sustainably in the present

This year on the journal we hope to feature frugal living tips that we practice here on the urban homestead  – from cooking from scratch to kitchen beauty to you name it.

Funny how one picks up habits from our parent and grandparents not knowing why one’s doing what their doing but what one is doing is very eco practical.  Wow, that was a long sentence.  For us kids we’ve really not know any other way – we’ve lived without a microwave and even a clothes dryer our entire life.  So to us this is “sustainable way of life” is just something we did because well, we didn’t have a choice.  And now such practices are being lauded as “saving the earth” or “green living.”  Well, what do you know!  We’ve gone from being hippie to hip.  Times have changed and grandma and grandpa don’t look too old fashion or out of date anymore.  Instead of “get with the times grandma” it’s “hey grandma was green!”

One of Farmer D’s favorite saying of his is “a step backwards is progress.”  Something to think about.

Every blogger or writer should know that documenting something is much more time consuming than just doing it.  Keeping balance our personal journey towards living a more simple and sustainable life and sharing it is difficult.   It’s tough doing both and I sometimes wish… well, I just keep that to myself.

So folks, what would you like to see featured first?


  1. Lauren V says:

    I just started gardening last year on our small city lot, and will be buying 3 chickens this summer. I am terrible at cooking and only succeed when following a recipe word-for-word. Which is what I do, every day. Since I work 11-12 hour days away from home, I usually turn to simple, fast recipe books, that offer healthy and diet foods. I just ordered the “More with Less” cookbook because I would like to start cooking more sustainably (and my grandmother is Mennonite), while still using what I grow myself, but I know this will probably take more time than buying a can of diced tomatos for a recipe. I would love suggestions on recipes or books, and advice on what is most practical to grow yourself. Grains are not practical on a city lot obviously, but I’m assuming beans would be a good choice (besides the staples: tomatos, cucumbers, eggplant, etc). I also live in New England, so we don’t have a long growing season.

  2. risa b says:

    >what would you like

    Solar drying! With plans, exemplars, and recipes.

  3. Maureen says:

    I’d love to see some of the recipes you use for your weekly meal roundup. Learning to use less for us means simpler recipes with less ingredients….share please!

    (and ditto on the solar drying)

  4. Mama Taney says:

    I’d love to see some knowledge on cooking with dry beans. We’ve been growing our own for a couple years, and this is one of our “new steps”. Growing up I wasn’t a big bean eater, so trying to learn to cook with dried beans, and how to fit that into my daily schedule, is proving to be trickier than I thought!
    Thanks, as always, for everything y’all are doing!! 🙂

  5. Mia says:

    I just want to say thank you for all the inspiration you put in the pages for the rest of to glean from. Anything that you have the time to post is wonderful. I don’t know how you manage any of it. All the suggestions so far sound wonderful. I like the idea of knowing what crops you get the most bang for your buck (and time) with.

  6. Luvnschooln says:

    I second Maureen’s comment. I’d like to learn to cook more simply, with fewer ingredients. I know you’re hoping to do a cookbook, but in the meantime would love to see of your staple recipes, like your pizza. We also live where we can’t grow fresh veggies in winter, so few and simple ingredients is what we’ve got. I do have a lot of home-canned fruit and tomatoes!

    Thanks for your inspiration and encouragement.

  7. John says:

    I would like to learn more about making bread and pasta from scratch.

  8. Susy says:

    My parents started their lives together in the jungles of South America with no modern conveniences (not even a fridge). When we moved to a larger city, it was still less than modern, no phone, electric & water rationing, and other things. We grew up eating only food made from scratch from whole natural ingredients.

    I continue to feed us that way. My huband grew up completely opposite. Only convenience food and take-out. He now loves the old-fashioned home made from scratch everything.

    This year Mr Chiots and I are detoxing our personal care routines. We’re hoping to learn how to make soaps, lotions and other things. I’d love to see these kinds of things.

  9. Di says:

    I don’t care what you post I just want more! lol!

  10. Talithia says:

    We all have hard days…. I want to thank you for helping people like me and my family (3 kids). You are in a way saving us, from us and well also Monsanto with all your info and giving me something to reach for and well to live towards. I thank you and may God bless you and your family. You are loved by more people than you know…

  11. altadenahiker says:

    I like whatever you send our way. And I rather think your judgement is best in this regard. The serendipity of your site is what I appreciate. For example, prior to your goats, who would have said, “Bring us some goat information!” I could go on and on — canning, solar ovens, raised beds … You brought these subjects to the table — you offered, and I’ve found a deep interest. And I thank you all.

  12. Susan says:

    Hi there. I’d very much like to see details of your gardening methods such as seed starting medium, seed starting type (soil blocks, flats, etc.), wood used for raised beds, your composting set-up, seed-starting set up, lighting for seed starting, animal feed sources and details on raising each variety of animal. We used to work for The Mother Earth News and have lived much of this lifestyle but I’m always curious as to how others are doing things even if you are in a very different climate. Thanks beyond words for living it AND making it public and accessible.

  13. kaythegardener says:

    For those new to cooking from scratch, have you seen the basic cookbooks for teens or those leaving for college in your public library?

  14. PhoenixJen says:

    Of course – more of EVERYTHING! =)

    I would love to see how you’ve laid out your property (I live on an almost identical sized property here in downtown Phoenix), more about seed starting (LOVE the soil blocks, by-the-way), soil mixes, composting, succession planting, square-inch planting….

    I know you folks are Jeavons fans – how do you use his methods on your property?

    Remineralization and soil-building!

    Anything you make – be it knitting, making an outdoor shower, canning, cooking, trellises – you name it!

    We are blessed with a year-long growing season here in Phoenix too – however within that year we have several very short growing seasons – so I need information on season extenders like shade cover and frost cover (hoop houses and the like). More nuts and bolts (I’ll supply the nuts – woo hoo!)

    And I agree – although it may take a lot of time – your efforts at writing up this blog is what makes your site so beneficial to a world-wide movement of scaling back and living simply. Never, ever think that you don’t make a difference in thousands of lives every single day.

    My best to you all and your volunteers, tech people and all the folks that help you guys keep doing what you’re doing!


  15. chel says:

    thank you for all your hard work. You guys make a big differance in many lives of people you will likely never meet. I very much appreciate all your hard work. And since I’m a visual person, I find you pictures inspiring.
    Thank for helping this beginer gardener believe she can do it to:-)

  16. ceridwen says:


    I’ve been searching and re-searching your website for precise details of your gardening methods and havent found this – maybe I’ve overlooked it. So – heres another vote for details re gardening methods.

    I am writing from Britain – where we dont have the prolonged growing season that you are blessed with. Also many of us – including me – only have tiny tiny little backyards (ie paved spaces) and have to count ourselves fortunate to have, say, 150-200 square feet worth of space (some of which is probably in shade at that). So – for many of us everything has to be grown in containers. Many of us (including myself) are complete newbies to this and dont even know basic stuff. We need step-by-step info and a general approach of optimising the amount of food we produce from literally every square inch of the tiny amount of ground that is all a lot of us have.

    So – I’m taking you as role models – and hoping for some info along those lines.

    (You may be interested to see the blog I’ve started up – where I record useful/interesting info as I come across it:


    as I try and make notes applicable to all the other newbie would-be foodgrowing gardeners on a massive Forum I belong to.)

  17. Michelle says:

    I would like to see a master list of staples that you purchase – thanks

  18. redclay says:

    Personally, I think the secret is in the sauce. If I satrt with some cooked grain or potatoes, and then add some veggies, I need some kind of sauce to hold it together. That is where I’m struggling on the home-cooking front and I think you could help me personally.

    I understand your sentiment that you don’t know any different (home cooking, gardening, no microwave) because you had no choice in the way you were raised. You are interesting to so many of us because this was NOT how we were raised.

    For me, knowing your decision making process about making your meals, how you decide to have what when, how do you incorporate leftovers, etc. would be interesting.

    I would also be interested in some more details (specifically) about your gardening techniques…seeding rates for your cut and come again greens for instance…what things do you use from Jeavons and where do you depart. Maybe you could take a break from posting and get Justin in there to discuss this idea.

  19. Melissa says:

    I’ve been a silent follower of your blog for about a year now – the comment ‘a step backwards is progress’ by Farmer D is really beautiful and so right – that is what has prompted me to come out of hiding.

    I live in a town in the Kent, UK and fill my back garden with gorgeous veggies growing each year – your site and way of life is a total inspiration to me – many heartfelt thanks for sharing with the world, Mel

  20. Ann Erdman says:

    I happily await whatever good advice you have to offer. I have learned a lot from your site the past few months. Thanks for sharing your experiences and wisdom with us.

  21. Sue Charboneau says:

    I am interested in soil building,just starting out.Have about the same size of yard as you do,but live in the Columbia Basin area of Washington state.My goal is to have a year round garden.I look forward to reading your journal.

  22. Susan Smith says:

    Hi: Time seems to be an issue for all of us. I would be interested in what % of your family’s time is spent on various activities. There are only so many hours in the day and even with 4 adults working hard it must always seem like there is sooooo much to do.
    For Lauren: my favorite recipe from the M-W-L cookbook is Savory Grain and Bean Pot pg. 211 in my copy. Thanks to everyone for all the info. Susan

  23. Ellen says:

    I’d have to say recipes would be fantastic especially for the items you’ve featured that week on your meal wrap up. I’d love to see more photos of your kitchen especially how you store things.

  24. Beth M says:

    I really like this post. I’ve always said that I feel like I’m channeling a depression era ghost. Even though the depression was scary tough times, the lessons we can learn from the people who survived during, are priceless. My husband’s late Grandma was a wealth of wonderful knowledge. I miss her.

  25. Stephanie in AR says:

    I would like variety recommendations. I understand that what grows well in CA might not be a good fit in AR but an idea would be nice. At least what varieties store well. We moved from our town lot to two acres so while we have a bit more space I believe that urban/small space ideas are more suitable.

    Recipes are nice too. Links to where we could search more ourselves – you only have so much time in the day!

  26. Stephany says:

    I was just thinking how amazing it was that finally after 38 years, I am finally doing something considered hip and trendy.

    I will appreciate anything you post, you always have such great ideas. I really poke around here for different reasons. Once in one of your interviews, I heard you say something to the effect that “you grew up this way so that you didn’t really know any other way”. That really resonated for me because so often I feel such a disconnect from people around me because I also grew up this way and I don’t really know any other way.

    I think a lot more people than you realize come to your blog for camaraderie and commiseration.

  27. Cena says:

    Soil building, and how you get salads year round.
    Thank you for the 8 years of previous posting I can read through already. I read a little every day, and am gleaning so much. These blogs and forums are so valuable because we learn a great deal just seeing how others do things. And it sparks our own ideas. We have 10 kids and I can’t tell you how many people just want to hear seemingly mundane things like how to get all the laundry done, or large scale simple cooking. With all our neighbors commuting all day and playing on the weekends, it’s wonderful to have this “community” to be a part of. Your family blesses so many. Thank you.

  28. Diane says:

    As sad as it sounds “sour grass soup” is actually a summer treat. It is made with sorrel (garden, not wood) and served chilled with sour cream. We called it “schav”.

  29. Valerie Willman says:

    I’m overwhelmed. There are so many things I want to try and do, I get tired just thinking of them all — and then none of them get tried.

    My roommate and I are planning on turning our front yard into a big garden. But I know nothing on how to do that, save from laying down cardboard and leaves until the grass dies.

    Everyone in the house wants to keep a few chickens — save my husband. He fears the chaos and extra work. I’m not sure how to convince him. Nor if it will really save money on food budget in the long run.

    I don’t know anything about what plants to plant next to each other … and why.

    I could go on and on…

  30. mary says:

    We homeschool our four children. This year we have started a unit study on the great depression. I believe there is much to be learned from those who lived through that time of history. My husband and I have always practiced frugality – love reading the tighwad gazette etc – but we are looking to sharpen our thrifty efforts this year. It is out of a sense of stewardship more than anything else. There is so much ‘reward-yourself-you-deserve-it-luxury-lifestyle’ foisted upon our children through ads [and we don’t even watch TV!] that living within your means with a back to basics mentality seems like a foreign concept anymore.
    I deeply appreciate all the information on PTF!! I would welcome more information on designing the garden to be both aesthetically pleasing and productive; rainwater reclaiming; raising chickens in the city…

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