Are You Taking Recession Tips From Your Grandparents?

When I was a kid, I used to spend a week or two every summer with my beloved grandmother, a lovely, clever woman who grew up dirt poor on a farm during the Great Depression.

My grandmother wasn’t a cheap woman, but she was a frugal one: she saved everything, clipped coupons, and had tactics to stretch the lifespans of certain foods. Bread, for example, was always kept in the freezer, with two pieces defrosted at a time in order to make a sandwich. For a woman living alone, she explained, it was the best way to get through an entire loaf of bread without it going stale or moldy.

As a child, I just thought my grandmother was quirky (she was, but that’s another post) and that her habits were just wacky old lady behavior. As I got older, however, I recognized that my grandmother’s tendency to hoard canned goods and buy three loaves of bread on sale (freezing them all) was a direct result of her childhood in the 1930’s. My grandfather, who died when I was only 5, had similarly strange habits: he used to eat cold mashed potato sandwiches, a trick he picked up in the Marines during World War 2, as a means to ensure that the leftovers would never go to waste. He’d also eat pea sandwiches, using honey on the bread as a means to trap the peas. These stories always made me laugh as a kid; they were so weird and gross, but now that I’m grown I can see that my grandparents were raised to make use of everything, and that their behaviors were quite normal in that way.

The New York Times recently profiled several Depression survivors, noting how several of them made ends meet in difficult times; a bit of a cautionary tale for those of us raised in an era of temporary gadgets, wasted groceries, and full cupboards. Now that the Recession is in full swing, many people are looking to their grandparents for tips on how to survive the tough times. 74 year old Gladys Cole recalls how her mother mended everything in an attempt to keep the family linens and towels in shape: “My mother never threw anything away. If a sheet got worn, she would cut it up and put it together with another sheet for the people who lived in the rooms – they didn’t care, they weren’t fussy about linens the way people are today. She mended towels, and when they frayed around the edges, she cut them up to make washcloths.”

A spirit of giving to those less fortunate is also recalled: Anna Jane Nichols, 87, tells a heartbreaking tale of how her mother would always leave out scraps for vagrants, closing the blinds so that they wouldn’t feel watched when they picked up the free food. “My mother was a big-hearted woman. If she had a dessert, she always put a dessert out there. Sometimes they’d leave little notes: ‘Thank you, Ma’am.’ One woman came along – I was surprised, it was usually men – she said, ‘Your gingerbread was lovely.’ She had some sort of piece of paper, it looked like a piece of a bag, just a few words, she said, ‘I always liked to bake gingerbread and your gingerbread was lovely.'”

So what about you, commenters? Have you picked up any tips from Depression survivors? My grandparents have passed away, but I often think of them and their slightly wacky methods of coping. While I may not be down with pea and mashed potato sandwiches, I do keep loaves of bread in the freezer, and I always have a stockpile of canned goods on hand. I’ve also inherited my grandmother’s favorite method of keeping quick, cheap calories in the house: there’s always a pack of candy bars in the cupboard, just in case.

Making Ends Meet In The Great Depression [NYTimes]

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