Potato Pancakes
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Depression-Era Thanksgiving Recipes That Are Actually Delicious

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Potato Pancakes
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Hard Times, Great Recipes

During the Depression, scarce resources and frugal mindsets forced home cooks to get creative during the holidays, but the recipes they devised out of necessity deserve a second look in times of plenty. These Thanksgiving recipes from the 1930s stood the test of time as reminders of an America that no longer exists, though some call for ingredients that might seem unfamiliar today an others require more work than modern cooks are used to putting in. All, however, were created for special feasts in a time food was a precious commodity.

Related: 12 Things We Can Learn From the Great Depression

vegetarian mushroom meatballs
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Porcupine Meatballs

Plenty of people have childhood memories of homemade porcupine meatballs — a budget-stretching dish devised as a way to use inexpensive rice (which gives the meatballs their telltale spines) to stretch scant servings of meat and fill hungry stomachs. 

Recipe: Food52

roasted chicken
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Old Roasted Hen

The New York Times profiled a New Deal-era radio program designed to help financially strapped housewives make a little go a long way during the Depression. One of the suggestions was to forgo the pricey traditional turkey altogether in favor of one of the cheapest roaster birds — an old hen. Old hens are harder to cook, but if you know the tricks and are willing to put in a little elbow grease, it's a doable challenge. It might be especially relevant now for the millions of Americans opting for small Thanksgiving gatherings in 2020, which might not justify cooking a whole turkey.

Recipe: The Prairie Homestead

Related: 28 Alternatives to a Basic Thanksgiving Turkey

beef rouland
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Mock Duck

Among the grandest of all Thanksgiving dishes ad-libbed by clever cooks during the Depression was mock duck, according to the New York Times piece. The concoction involved "flank steak spread with a stuffing made from stale bread crumbs, rolled up, tied, seared in fat and roasted in the oven" to mimic perfectly the taste of a much more expensive holiday duck.

Recipe: Food.com

Creamed pearl onions
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Creamed Onions

The Times profile of Depression-era Thanksgiving cuisine didn't omit side dishes, and creamed onions topped the list. Cheap, simple, and easily customizable depending which ingredients a struggling family might have on hand, the result is affordable, filling, and, of course, creamy comfort food.

Recipe: Taste of Home

Potato Pancakes
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Potato Pancakes

This recipe comes from a woman named Penny Hall, who in 2013 credited it to a then 87-year-old woman who grew up during the Depression. But many cookbooks and recipe databases from the era cite some version of potato pancakes as a Thanksgiving staple back then. Why? Potatoes are cheap, versatile, store well, and fill stomachs.

Recipe: Just a Pinch

Related: 15 Ways to Spice Up Thanksgiving Leftovers

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Thanksgiving_1620_006_dev_01 by Chriss Knisley (CC BY-NC-ND)

Chestnut Stuffing

The Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise recently unearthed a few amazing Thanksgiving recipes printed Nov. 21, 1932, in a predecessor newspaper called The Beaumont Journal. Credited to Mrs. Alexander George, they include a recipe for chestnut stuffing. Like several recipes on this list, there's a step that might seem laborious today — in this case, pressing boiled nuts through a sieve — but that's all part of the charm.

Recipe: Beaumont Enterprise

Related: Unexpected Stuffing Recipes to Shake Up Thanksgiving Dinner

pumpkin pie
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Colonial Pumpkin Pie

This pumpkin pie comes from the Beaumont collection as well, and it, too, makes you work for the authenticity you'll get if you can pull it off. It calls for cooked, mashed pumpkin — not the stuff in the can — and instead of giving exact baking temperatures, it provides vagueness such as "moderate oven," "lower fire," and "slow oven." If you're a confident cook who's up for an intermediate-level challenge, you'll emerge with a quintessential old-world pumpkin pie.

Recipe: Beaumont Enterprise

Related: 18 Creative Pie Recipes to Spice Up Your Holidays

Cranberry Jam
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Spiced Cranberry Jelly

Cranberry sauce today comes out of a can, ridges and all, ready for circular slicing — but it wasn't always that way. This traditional variation from the Beaumont republishing is rustic but potent thanks to bold ingredients like whole cloves, cinnamon bark, and lemon juice. It involves the boiling of actual cranberries, but the result is nothing like the gelatin cylinder we've become accustomed to.

Recipe: Beaumont Enterprise

Related: 24 Condiments From Around the World to Add Zing to Any Meal

Dandelion Salad
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Dandelion Salad

Dandelion greens and blossoms are versatile, nutritious, readily available, and — at least before their recent reintroduction as a chic superfood — cheap, which is why they were so popular in the 1930s. This interesting starter salad includes citrus, eggs, and leeks.

Recipe: Taste of Home

Sugar Cream Pie
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Indiana Sugar Cream Pie

If Thanksgiving dinner starts with dandelion salad, it should wind down with a classic period-appropriate dessert. A woman named Laura Kipper from Westfield, Indiana, says she grew up calling it "Hoosier cream pie." no matter the name, expect creamy, custardy, silky goodness.

Recipe: Taste of Home

creamy fondue
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Creamy Chipped Beef Fondue

Although it's still common diner food in Philadelphia and Baltimore, chipped beef is probably unfamiliar to many (except for anyone who has served in the military, where it's been standard fare for generations). During the Depression, it was popular because it's flavorful, gets meat on the plate, and is made from inexpensive dried beef. It's commonly served on a piece of toast — or a "shingle," as a vulgar military expression goes — but this Thanksgiving recipe calls for skewering and dipping, fondue style.

Recipe: Taste of Home

Related: 25 Betty Crocker-Era Holiday Recipes That We Secretly Love

Cranberry Stuffing
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Spiced Cranberry Stuffing

The Iowa State University Archives blog Cardinal Tales dusted off show scripts from a Depression-era program on the school's radio station called "Homemaker's Half Hour." Those scripts contain amazing Thanksgiving recipes that were nearly lost to time. Among them is this must-know recipe for anyone who winds up with more cranberries than they know what to do with.

Recipe: Cardinal Tales

Related: The Least Popular Thanksgiving Dishes — and What to Make Instead

apple stuffing
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Apple and Raisin Stuffing

This recipe comes from an episode of "Homemaker's Half Hour" called "For the Thanksgiving Dinner of Today." Like so many others on the list, this classic Depression-era side dish combines bold flavors. It's made with salted pork, sugar, tart apples, onions, and raisins.

Recipe: Cardinal Tales

Related: 21 Casseroles Your Grandma Could Make Without Opening a Cookbook