Peanut Butter and Mayo Sandwiches? Historic Recipes from Hard Times

Woman Cooking in Camp

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Woman Cooking in Camp
Corbis / Getty Images

Hardtack for Hard Times

Though rising food prices have dominated headlines for months now, by world historical standards food remains amazingly cheap and abundant. Here are some foods people of the past ate in times of hardship or scarcity — some which are tasty enough to still be worth eating today, and others that nobody would ever choose if they had any better options.

homemade vegetarian pot pie entre

Lord Woolton Pie

Traditionally, British savory pies are rich foods, consisting of pastry made flaky with suet (a type of beef fat), then filled with rich items like meat and eggs. But during World War II, meat, eggs, and cooking fats were all strictly rationed. So a chef at London's ultra-upscale Savoy Hotel devised a pie recipe requiring no meat, eggs, or fat at all. 

Oatmeal and mashed potatoes did duty for crust and gravy, and the filling consisted of whatever root vegetables were easy to grow in the British climate. The recipe was named Lord Woolton Pie, after the wartime Minister of Food.

Recipe: Savor the Flavour

Tulip bulbs

Tulip Bulb Soup

In the Netherlands, the winter of 1944-45 is remembered as the Hunger Winter, after Nazi occupiers blocked the nation's food supply in retaliation to a Dutch rail worker strike, leaving Dutch civilians to starve. By February of 1945, food supplies were so low that the daily food ration was only 340 calories per day. To supplement that unsurvivable, meager amount of food, people resorted to eating tulip bulbs, which are partially edible (provided certain toxic parts, such as the germ at the very core of each bulb, are removed first).

Recipe: Atlas Obscura

Vinegar Pie

Vinegar Pie

For most of history, lemons were an expensive luxury for anyone who didn't live in walking distance of where they are grown. For lemon-pie fans who couldn't afford actual lemons, vinegar served as an affordable substitute for the tart fruit. Vinegar pie soared in popularity during the Great Depression, and it was one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's favorite desserts.

Recipe: The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion

Related: Depression-Era Desserts That Are Actually Delicious

Eleventh Indiana Volunteer Regiment Civil War Engraving

Ramrod Rolls

Battlefield cooks during the Civil War not only had to overcome a lack of ingredients but a lack of basic cooking equipment. Notoriously ill-equipped Confederate soldiers often subsisted on “ramrod rolls,” made by combining cornmeal and water into a paste, wrapping it around their gun's ramrod or bayonet, and cooking it over an open flame. In the book “Gone With the Wind,” Scarlett and Melanie realize their side is losing when a visiting soldier dares them to bite into a ramrod roll, and the horrified women wonder how the army can continue fighting with only “this stuff” to eat.

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Spring dandelion salad

Dandelion Salad

Though modern Americans usually dismiss dandelions as weeds, they are edible herbs that actually contain many important nutrients. The Cleveland Clinic calls dandelion greens “probably the most nutritionally dense green you can eat — outstripping even kale or spinach.” 

During the Great Depression, hungry Americans often made salads from foraged dandelions. One woman who survived the Depression shared her dandelion salad recipe here:

Recipe: Wonder How To

Tart Pan Filled with Raw Pastry Dough
Candice Bell/istockphoto

Water Pie

Water pie is one of the more ingenious recipes invented during the Great Depression. As the name suggests, it's a pie whose custard filling is made primarily of water and flour, requiring no eggs, cream or milk.   

Recipe: Allrecipes

bowl of baby food


During the Great Depression, when many Americans were at high risk of malnutrition, researchers at Cornell University developed one of the first-ever fortified cereals. Milkorno was a combination of dry milk and cornmeal with added calcium and vitamins, soon followed by Milkoato (milk and oats) and Milkwheato. Magazine advertisements offered “meals for a family of 5 for $5 a week,” and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt fed Milkorno products to guests at the White House. 

Authentic old recipes using one of these fortified cereals as a main ingredient can be found here and here.

nettle soup

Stinging Nettle Soup

As their name promises, stinging nettles will indeed sting if you touch a fresh or still-growing plant. But cooked nettles lose their sting and can be eaten like other greens. Stinging nettles have never been cultivated as a food crop, but in times of famine, foragers throughout history nourished themselves by making and eating boiled nettle soup. 

Recipes: Simply Beyond Herbs

Closeup of tree trunk

Tree Bark

Most tree bark is completely inedible for human beings, no matter how it is prepared. At least, the outer bark is inedible. But beneath the thick outer bark layer is a thin white layer of inner bark, and for many tree species — especially pine and birch — this inner bark layer is edible to humans. During recent famines in North Korea, many desperate people were driven to eat bark to survive, according to the Association of Asian Studies.

Recipe: Mental Floss

Homemade Fluffernutter Marshmallow Peanut Butter Sandwich

Peanut Butter and Mayonnaise Sandwiches

Before peanut butter and jelly became the classic American sandwich, Americans desperate for cheap, calorie-dense sources of protein and fat during the Great Depression made sandwiches out of peanut butter and mayonnaise, according to Southern food and lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun.

fresh seaweed for carrageenan extraction

Irish Moss (Carrageenan)

In modern times, carrageenan is a common food additive, often used to thicken and emulsify ice cream, yogurt, and other products. It comes from a type of red Atlantic seaweed often known as Irish moss. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1800s, many Irishmen added dried Irish moss to whatever foods they did have, to make them more filling.

Recipe: Smithsonian Magazine

Old boots

Boiled Leather Soup

Since leather is made of animal skin, it is technically edible (unless it has been tanned, since tanning strips leather of most of its nutrients and in many instances can also leave toxic substances behind). Throughout history, there are many accounts of famine or extreme food shortages driving people to boil their leather goods in order to eat them. During the Siege of Leningrad in World War II, when over 800,000 people died (many from starvation), survivors later recalled being desperate enough to boil and eat their leather shoes and belts

Close-up image of stack of flattened cardboard boxes tied together, pile of recyclable material awaiting pavement collection outdoors, focus on foreground


In 2014, when Islamic State militants captured the city of Mosul in Iraq, conditions in the city got so dire, and food supplies so scarce, that people reported boiling cardboard to make it soft enough to eat, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Homemade Tasty Applesauce Cake on a white plate, low angle view. Close-up.
Liudmyla Chuhunova/istockphoto

Applesauce Cake

In World War II, eggs and dairy products were strictly rationed and very difficult for civilians to obtain. This egg- and dairy-free applesauce cake, reportedly invented by a Canadian housewife in 1941, was dubbed “best wartime recipe” by readers of The Windsor Star in Ontario, Canada

Recipe: The Windsor Star/

Sweet bake

Oatmeal and Gooseberry Pie

During World War I, frequent shortages of common ingredients forced British cooks and homemakers to be inventive. The People's Friend magazine held frequent recipe contests for its readers, and one prize-winning recipe from 1917 was for a four-ingredient Oatmeal and Gooseberry Pie.

Recipe: The People’s Friend