Clara's Kitchen

Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression

Clara Cannucciari, Everybody's Favorite YouTube Grandmother, with Her Grandson Christopher Cannucciari

St. Martin's Press

CLARA'S KITCHEN
CHAPTER ONE
Goods from the Garden and "Found" Foods
ESPECIALLY IN THE LEAN YEARS of the Depression, we lived on vegetables and, and it kept us plenty strong and healthy for all the hard work at hand. Meat was a treat, but vegetables were our staples.
When I was a kid, my father kept a garden in the backyard, which we helped him keep up, and my mother would take the vegetables we grew and make them into all kinds of meals. Not just side dishes like you would today. The vegetables, made with pasta or on their own, were the main event. Meat was too hard to come by most of the time. We had to stretch out whatever we had for as long as we could, so whatever we couldn't eat, my mother would can and preserve for winter. Sometimes we'd eat stuff that grew wild,like burdock and dandelions and mushrooms. We'd find it, and Ma would clean and cook it.
My father would plant vegetables all summer. Ma would take out the seeds, dry them out, and then my father would plant them again. And that's how we kept our garden growing. Whatever was left over, my mother would can. We ate really well in the Depression, and throughout the year, because of that. Here are some of my favorite recipes Ma made with the vegetables we grew.
Swiss Chard with Garlic
Serves 4
IT'S EASY TO FORGET about nutrition when your pockets are empty, but where there's dirt, there's food--healthy, nutritious food. Back in the Depression, lots of people grew gardens to eat from, including us. Some people would grow gardens in the summer and then go through the streets and try and sell their stuff. Buying someone else's vegetables was too expensive for us, but we still needed to eat.
A couple of times, my father stood in line for food the government supplied, but he hated it. He was very proud and self-reliant, and he would rather go without than take handouts. I think he went twice and then never again. Instead, my father took matters into his own hands and kept a great big garden in our backyard. He grew just about everything there. Carrots, escarole, spinach, asparagus, radishes, beans, eggplant, peppers, Swiss chard, you name it. We ate so healthy with all those vegetables and we weren't even trying. And we worked hard helping him keep that garden in shape. No wonder we all live so long--my brother and I are both healthy and strong and in our nineties!
Swiss chard was good, but it was always a little bitter for me, so Ma would always add some garlic to give it a little extra something. You can toss this over pasta or serve it as a side for a meat dish.
You will need
1 bunch Swiss chard 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced Salt and pepper
1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil.
2. Thoroughly rinse the Swiss chard, removing most of the tough stems (but leave some if they look like they will be tender).
3. Add the Swiss chard to the pot. Boil 5 minutes, then drain and set aside. When it's cool enough to handle, squeeze it between your hands to get all the extra water out of the chard.
4. Add the oil to a medium frying pan set over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until the garlic turns a very light brown.
5. Add the Swiss chard and saute until tender--about 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Fried Potatoes and Vegetables
Serves 4
WINTERS WERE TOUGH in the Midwest, then and now.
I never liked winter. And I hate snow. It's white, but it darkens your heart. Especially when you have to walk through piles of it with holes in your stockings to get to school.
But it did have one upside for us. In winter, when there was snow and ice, we'd be able to save food longer. We didn't have a refrigerator or even an icebox when I was a kid, and we'd have to eat everything or else it'd go bad. But in the wintertime, we could store our food outside, digging a hole in the snow and ice. Mom would say: "Sam, go out and get the leftover roast from last night. It's buried out by the fence." I laugh about it now, but it was kind of sad.
Later, though, we had an icebox. The iceman would come and bring us fifty pounds of ice. There was a tray underneath that Sam and I were supposed to remember to empty. We'd forget about it all the time and get such a whuppin' if all that water ended up on the floor. They sure didn't "spare the rod" in those days.
No, we didn't have most of the modern conveniences everyone has today. We relied on canning and jarring to preserve our food when we couldn't "ice" it. We didn't have a washing machine until after the Depression. We used to wash clothes with a washboard, which I still have hangingin my home. Because of my mother's arthritis, she would boil the clothes, but then it would be up to me to scrub them against the washboard and wring them out through a hand-cranked wringer. It was pretty hard to do.
We had indoor plumbing, but we didn't have central heat. We warmed our house with a wood-burning stove and furnace, but because my parents always wanted to save coal and wood, it was always cold in the house. And they didn't want to use up what they had in case it got colder. We'd sit in front of the stove and the front of us would be warm, but our backs would freeze. Then we'd turn around and warm our backs, and our fronts would freeze. Those were the good old days, before we had a real furnace.
The only lights we had were from our two kerosene lamps, but in the 1920s, we got gaslights. They put in pipes and almost every room had a light. The lights would be on the side of the wall and there would be little jets of gas that you would light by putting a match there. There would be the little flicker of gaslight and we thought this was so bright. In the 1930s, our house got wired with electricity and we had our first lightbulbs. When we turned them on for the first time we thought, "Oh my gosh, it's like daylight!" Maybe it was 20 or 15 watts, but we thought it was so bright. (And we left in the gaslights just in case we lost the lightbulbs.)
Fried Potatoes and Vegetables is a hearty meal that's good in the winter because it'sfilling and warms you from the inside. Turnips are in season from November to April, so they're good to cook with in winter, but they can be stored a long time, so this meal can be eaten any time of the year.
You will need
4 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes 1 turnip, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes ½ red onion, diced 1 celery stalk (leaves and all), chopped 1 tomato, chopped ½ heap escarole, chopped Salt and pepper Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Pour the vegetable oil into a frying pan and set it over medium heat Add the potatoes, turnip, carrots, and onion and saute slowly, about 15 minutes, but don't mix the vegetables too much or they won't brown.
2. Add the chopped celery and saute for another 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are brown on all sides.
3. Add the tomato and escarole and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Turn off heat.
4. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle with cheese. Serve immediately.
Squash with Eggs
Serves 6
WE MADE A LOT OF MEALS with eggs because they weren't just cheap, they were practically free. Back in those days, we all had our own chickens, which we kept in the yard. It was pretty normal to have a few chickens running around the yard back then, but they probably wouldn't allow that anymore. So we always had our own eggs. And then sometimes for Sunday dinner, we'd kill a chicken. But that was rare. We needed the eggs!
Squash was one of the vegetables we grew in our garden, and there was always plenty of it to go around. So free eggs and free vegetables made Squash and Eggs one of our most delicious meals. Maybe more delicious because it didn't cost anything but the time it took to fry it up.
 
You will need
4 tablespoons vegetable oil 3 large yellow summer squash, diced 12 large eggs Salt and pepper Pecorino Romano cheese, optional
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium to high heat. Add the squash to the oil and saute for about 10 minutes, or until tender.
2. Crack the eggs into the pan with the squash (for one-pot cooking) and scramble until they achieve the desired texture.
3. Remove the pan from the heat, and add salt and pepper to taste. I also like to top this with a little Pecorino Romano cheese.
Take It from Me
If you don't think you have time to exercise, just clean your kitchen. I think it's kind of silly--the people jogging. Scrubbing my floors and counters makes everything strong, and my kitchen looks good.
Spinach and Rice
Serves 4
WHEN I WAS A GIRL, I was a tomboy. I loved playing active games, running around and using up a lot of energy. After school, some of the girls played house or with dolls, but I liked playing tag or hide-and-seek. And pretty much every time we were playing, someone would ask: "Do you want to play baseball?" I always wanted to play baseball. But I'd get skinned if I got my school clothes dirty, so I'd say, "Yeah! I'll be out in a minute," and then I'd race home, take off my school dress, and put on a play dress.
I used to play a lot of baseball. Boys and girls would play together and we would play in the streets. Even in high school, I was still playing baseball with the boys. I didn't date any of them, but we were always hanging around together. The boys never asked what I was doing playing with them. I guess I just belonged with them. They would get into trouble, and I'd be with them, but when it got dark we'd all go home or our mothers would give us a lickin'. Sometimes I used to get one anyway. "Why don't you play dolls with the girls?" she'd ask me. But I didn't say anything. Baseball was just more fun.
It also meant needing lots of pep, so all those vegetables we were eating really helped--especially all that spinach. Here's a simple meal that can help to build up your strength,load you up with vitamins, and even though it's low in fat, will make you feel full.
 
You will need
6 cups raw spinach 1 cup rice 2 tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper
1. Cook the rice according to the manufacturer's directions--usually 2 cups of water for 1 cup of rice. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.
2. In a separate pot, boil 3 cups of water and add the spinach. Cook for 3 minutes and drain.
3. When the rice is cooked, combine it with the spinach. Add the oil and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and serve.
Spinach Omelet
Serves 4
THE PROBLEM with playing baseball after school was that you really couldn't play in a dress, and girls didn't wear pants back then. But I had a trick so I wouldn't keep tripping over my dress. I'd tuck my dress into my bloomers, which kind of made them look like pants. If you don't know, bloomers were long underwear with an elastic waist. So I guess you could say I was just running around in my underwear, which my mother didn't like very much at all. Whenever she caught me like that, she'd give me a good lickin' on the rear. But it was worth it. It really made playing ball a lot easier.
I also used to climb telephone poles a lot to get a view of the neighborhood, and I'd have to tuck my dress into my bloomers to do this, too. And when my mother would see me on the telephone pole, she'd go crazy and holler: "What's the matter with you, come in the house!" And I would get down, slowly, because I knew what was coming to me.
One time she got so mad, she came outside and stood under the pole. But she was very calm. "Clay, why don't you come down and come inside?" she asked me.
So I said, "No, you're going to hit me."
And she said, smiling and nice. "I'm not going to hit you, just come inside." So I came down and when she got a hold of me, boy, did I ever get it. It was dangerous now that I think of it. She was probably worried like crazy. But the view from up there was worth it.
So I got a lickin', but I never got sent to bed without supper. Weeknight meals were simple, but filling, and we'd have Spinach Omelet a lot. Here's how she made it.
 
You will need
2 tablespoons vegetable oil 4 cups large-leaf spinach 8 large eggs Salt and pepper
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.
2. Rinse the spinach and pat dry with a kitchen towel or paper towel. Add the spinach to the oil and saute until it wilts down, about 2 minutes.
3. Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk. Add the eggs to the wilted spinach and let them fill the whole pan. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Turn down the heat and let the eggs set. When they start to get solid, carefully turn the omelet over. Heat until the eggs are fully cooked. Divide into four parts and serve.
Sam's Favorite Green Beans
Serves 4
MY BROTHER, SAM, and I had the same relationship lots of brothers and sisters have when they grow up close in age and have to share everything. Sam was just the opposite of me. I was loud and always getting into trouble, while Sam was quiet and calm.
He played a really bad trick on me once. I don't know what got into him, but one day he put a garden snake in an envelope with my name and address on it and stuffed it into our mailbox. I was so excited to get mail, I picked it up and couldn't wait to tear it open. And then I realized there was something wiggly moving inside the envelope. When I opened it, did I ever get a good scare! And he got himself a pretty good whupping for that one. He didn't get punished or have to go to bed without dinner or anything like that. Mom took a more direct approach with her "lessons." It's funny to think about now, but if we were growing up these days and she ever hit us like that, she'd probably go to jail.
Anyway, Sam was happy to have his whupping and get itout of the way because that night we were having his favorite green beans. He used to really love these, but I think it was because he always hoped a roast chicken would somehow appear when my mother served them. They do actually go perfect with Roast Chicken (page 137), which I think was really Sam's favorite.
 
You will need
½ pound green beans, cleaned and trimmed 2 teaspoons olive oil ½ teaspoon lemon juice Salt and pepper
1. Bring a pot of water to the boil over high heat, and add the beans. Boil for about 6 minutes. Drain and give them a quick rinse in cold running water to return the snap to the beans.
2. Put the beans in a bowl, toss with the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Take It from Me
Lemon juice can be used to pep anything up, from a salad dressing to steak, and can also be used as a cheap, safe cleaner for your hands or your countertops. Lemon zest gives a bright lemon flavor to anything you add it to. So I always have lemons in the house.
Hand-Squeezed Lemonde
Serves 4
IF YOU HAVE LEMONS LEFT OVER, treat yourself to lemonade. Even though lemons were cheap at three for a quarter, sugar was expensive in the Depression. So the lemonade was always tart, but good on a hot day.
 
You will need
2 lemons 4 cups water Plenty of ice ¼ cup sugar 4 fresh mint leaves
Cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into a pitcher. Add the water and ice. Put in the sugar and mix with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved. Top with the fresh mint and serve.
Traditional Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 4
I TOLD YOU MY MOTHER made a lot of traditional Italian meals, using American ingredients when she had to, improvising the same way she improvised with English. Eggplant Parmesan was one of her signature dishes, and she was very traditional about it. She never strayed from the old ways on this dish. She never strayed away from the old ways about a lot of things. For instance, she never wore a pair of pants a day in her life and was disgusted when women started wearing them. Especially when I started wearing them.
I had never worn pants in my life before I started working in the factory, but everyone had to wear pants at the plant. Though I'd wear pants while I was at work, I was embarrassed to wear slacks on my way home. And forget about coming home wearing them. I'd try to change out of them and back into a skirt or dress before I left the factory. Sometimes I would forget to bring a dress and I would have to walk home in slacks. People wouldn't say anything to me, but the way they looked at me, I know they thought I was strange. "What is that girl wearing?"
Little by little that started to change. During the Depression so many women were working in the factories, wearing pants started to come into fashion, and pretty soon everyone was wearing pants. Except for my mother. She was of the old school, the real old school. And stubborn about it. If I ever came home from the factory with pants on, and my mom had people over, she got so embarrassed.
"Ma, everybody wears pants," I'd say to her.
And she'd say to me: "I don't care about everybody, I don't want you to be wearing them."
The same went for the Eggplant Parmesan. I loved the way she cooked it, but when I got older, I learned that a lot of people bread and flour the eggplant, and dress it up all kinds of ways. But try telling that to my mother.
I really like the traditional style--the way Ma made it. And I don't dress it up or make it fancy or anything like that. I like to just fry it and top it with some good tomato sauce.Also I never use parmesan cheese, I use what my mother used, Pecorino Romano. But I do wear pants most of the time. And that's that.
 
You will need
I large Italian eggplant ½ cup vegetable oil ¾ cup tomato sauce (see the Di Maria Family Sauce, page 94) 8 tablespoons Pecorino Romano cheese
1. Slice the eggplant into rounds, about ¼ inch thick. (You should end up with about 12 slices.) If you want, salt the slices for about an hour, then rinse. This will take out the bitter water and also give the flavor a little zip.
2. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Place one of the end slices of the eggplant in the oil; when the oil bubbles around it, the oil is ready for frying.
3. Fry the slices in batches, 10 to 12 minutes on one side, then 6 minutes on the other. (Flip the eggplant slices carefully, as the softer they get, the easier they fall apart.)
4. Remove the eggplant slices and drain them between paper towels, removing the excess oil from both sides of the slices.
5. When drained, arrange the slices on a serving platter and top each with about 1 tablespoon of tomato sauce and 2 teaspoons Pecorino Romano cheese.
While the Water Boils ... Bunco
Everyone went crazy over Bunco during the Depression, and I liked it, too. The game was fun, but everyone was always so serious about it in the giant halls where everyone played. No one ever talked. They'd just play. I guess it's because the games were being played for money and there was nothing fun about that kind of thing then. Anyway, when you play, talk as much as you want. Or you can play with people you don't like to talk to. You need three six-sided dice and a pen and paper. Here's how it works.
In a nutshell: Two to four players take turns rolling three dice, trying to roll the side of the dice corresponding to that round's number. For instance, in the first round, you want to roll ones on all three dice. The first to reach 21 wins the round. There are six rounds and whoever wins the most rounds is the "Big Winner."
 
You will need
3 dice
Round 1
The goal of the first round is to roll ones. If you get 1 one, you get 1 point and you get to roll again. If you roll 2 ones, that's 2 points and you keep rolling. If you roll no ones, you keep yourscore, but you hand over the dice to the person on your left. This goes on until someone reaches 21 and wins the round.
If you roll 3 ones, that's BUNCO, so make sure you yell it out! If someone gets BUNCO then they automatically win. BUNCO only applies to the number of the given round, in this instance, ones. If you were to roll 3 fives or 3 fours, etc, you get 5 points for getting a triplet, and then you roll again. Once a player has either reached 21 or rolled a BUNCO, the first round is over.
 
Round 2
In the second round, everyone tries to roll twos. The same rules apply. If you roll 1 or 2 twos you get 1 or 2 points and get to keep rolling. If you roll no twos, you keep the points you already earned, but your turn's over. Now if you roll 3 ones, it is not BUNCO, it's a triplet, and you get 5 points and another turn. But if you roll 3 twos, you get BUNCO! The first person to get to 21 points or BUNCO wins this round and records a win for this round.
 
And so forth
Continue through the rest of the numbers of the dice all the way to round 6, and whoever wins the most rounds wins the game. To break a tie, the players who are tied play one extra round. The side of the die used for this bonus round is decided by the roll of a single die before the bonus round is played.
Delicious Dandelions
We didn't always find our food in the grocery store. My two uncles owned grocery stores, and we'd get some there. But just because they owned the stores didn't mean we'd catch a break. So we didn't always buy the food we ate. Sometimes we couldn't--there just wasn't enough money at the end of the week to afford groceries. Sometimes we'd just have to eat whatever we found growing wild. Where some people maybe saw weeds, we saw dinner. But it was good.
Around the end of April is when the dandelions started to sprout. We headed out to our yard and picked them, eating the leaves (you have to clean and soak them before eating them!). My father was pretty happy about that--it saved him some time on weeding. My mother was also happy to have something to cook. She'd make all kinds of meals from them.
Take a large bowl and paring knife outside. Look for leaves that are green and healthy, and use your knife to uproot them. Cut the weed out at the start of the root and remove the flower.
Once you have filled your bowl, head inside to clean the dandelions. With your paring knife, carefully trim off any dirt, root, flowers, or wilted leaves. Try not to cut off too much of the bottoms or your leaves will come apart. Throw away the waste and rinse out the good parts. Rinse again andlet soak for about a half hour. Take the leaves out of the water carefully so that the dirt stays in the water. Discard the dirty water and rinse the bowl well. Rinse and soak three to four more times to ensure that the weeds are nice and clean.
Dandelion Salad
Serves 4
THIS IS A GREAT SALAD you can make right from your yard. It's delicious, and it's basically free.
You will need
5 cups dandelion leaves, cleaned 2 teaspoons olive oil Juice of 1 lemon Salt and pepper
Put the clean dandelions in a salad bowl and toss with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
Cooked Dandelion Leaves
Serves 2 to 4
YOU CAN ALSO COOK the leaves for a satisfying side dish, a quick hot snack, or to pep up a sandwich.
You will need
5 cups dandelion leaves, cleaned 2 teaspoons olive oil Juice of 1 lemon Salt and pepper
Bring 4 cups of water to the boil and add the cleaned dandelion leaves. Cook 3 to 5 minutes, or until tender. Drain and squeeze the excess water from the leaves. Toss the leaves with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
 
Found Fried Foods
Burdock was something we had a lot, because it grew all over the place--behind the shed--anywhere, really. Burdock is a weed, and weeds grow everywhere. There was always a lot of burdock around at the end of May. I remember this from my days working at the Hostess Twinkie factory. I used to pass the fields at Melrose Park and there it all was--miles of burdock and also dandelions and even mushrooms sometimes if you looked hard enough. I'd stop at the fields on my way back after my shift, fill up a big sack, and carry whatever I could stuff into the bag back home with me. We'd eat for nights on that. And sometimes people would come around with wild mushrooms that they would pick from the woods.
We weren't the only ones in my neighborhood to eat burdock. All the Italians used to pick it and eat it. The Germans in the neighborhood never understood it. "What are ya gonna do with that?" they'd ask us.
Of course, my mother had some other ideas about the Germans. Sure, she liked how clean they were. They were so clean, they even scrubbed the sidewalks in front of their houses, and the German lady across the street was always washing her windows. But she didn't trust them. "Don't go by the Germans," she'd say. I don't think she trusted anyone who wasn't Italian.
Fried Burdock
- Serves 4
You will need
4 stalks burdock ½ cup vegetable oil 1 large egg 2 cups bread crumbs ½ teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon pepper One 8-ounce can tomato sauce (or 1 cup leftover sauce if you've got it)
1. Soak the burdock plants in a bowl of water for about a half an hour to clean. Separate out the stalks and discard the rest. Cut the stalks into 3- to 4-inch-long pieces.
2. Boil the stalks in a large pot of salted water until tender, about 10 minutes. While the burdock boils, pour the oil into a large frying pan and set it over medium heat.
3. Crack and whisk the egg in a large bowl, and on a separate plate, combine the bread crumbs, salt, and pepper. Dip the cooked burdock in the egg, then lightly dredge it in the bread-crumb mixture, shaking off the excess crumbs.
4. When the oil is heated to the point that it's just hot enough to start smoking, drop in the breaded stalks. Fry 4 minutes per side, or until brown and crisp.
5. Drain the burdock on paper towels and serve. (Or, better yet, drain on a rag that you can wash and use again.)
Fried Mushrooms with Red Sauce
Serves 4
YOU CAN SERVE these open-faced on a generous slice of bread or toss with pasta or rice.
You will need
4 cups mushrooms 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons tomato sauce Salt and pepper
1. Clean the mushrooms well and slice them.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large fryingpan over medium-high heat. When the oil is heated to the point that it's just hot enough to start smoking, drop in the mushrooms.
3. Turn the heat down to medium and saute about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Turn off the heat and stir in the tomato sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Take It from Me
How do you know if the mushrooms you found are poison ous? My mother believed if you put a quarter in the pan with the mushrooms, and the coin turned black, the mushrooms were no good. While we all survived, you're probably best off "finding" your mushrooms in the grocery store.
CLARA'S KITCHEN. Copyright © 2009 by Clara Cannucciari with Christopher Cannucciari. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.