Ken’s History Project: Feeding a Family of Four During the Depression

Ken is currently studying the Depression Era in his Social Studies class.  His teacher gave the class a project– to shop and prepare a dinner for a family of four with just five bucks!  Seasonings, water and oil were “free” foods, but everything else had to be five dollars or less.  He actually had to bring in the receipt as proof.  Moreover, he said he needed pictures to which I responded, “Great!  I will blog it, too!”

I thought this was a cool assignment on many levels:  learning to work within a budget, learning what kind of nutritious meals can be made with little money and, of course, my favorite– cooking!  After some joking (on Ken’s part) about having boxes of PopTarts for dinner, I explained to him that he’d see that there was no way he could buy fresh meat and produce for four people on so little.

Then I told him that the protein in animal meats could be found by mixing beans another protein source like pasta or rice.  He decided that we would make a spinoff of one of our family dinners– pasta with cannellini beans and canned tuna in oil.  I warned him that we might have problems with canned tuna in oil, and may not be able to get the Italian tuna that I usually use at $3.5o a can.

Off we went to Wegman’s.  He saw how expensive the meat and fresh vegetables were and promptly went to the pasta aisle.  He noticed that some pastas were more expensive than others– spaghetti, fettuccine and linguine were the cheapest, the  fancy-shaped ones were more.  We agreed on a box of rigatoni, which was under a dollar, for a pound box.  We found a can of cannellini beans, too, for less than a dollar; he was so excited!

Then we went in search of canned tuna.  I told him that we could, if absolutely necessary, use tuna in water, but the sauce wouldn’t be as good.  We found two commercial brands– tuna in oil and tuna in olive oil.  Although we could afford the tuna in olive oil, Ken decided he wanted to look for a frozen vegetable, so he picked the tuna in regular oil (and I made a mental note to use my really good California Ranch olive oil when we were pulling together the sauce).

We found a box of frozen spinach for under a dollar.  When I asked about dessert, Ken said “It’s the depression, Mom!  Families saved their pennies for months to be able to go out one time to the ice cream parlor!”  We were also going to have water to drink.

Ken is already proficient in the kitchen, and only needed some guidance on seasoning.  I was a bit apprehensive about using dried onion, parsley and garlic powder instead of the fresh stuff, but seasonings were “free.”  Onions, garlic and parsley were not.  He spent $4.37 for the meal, including a box of frozen chopped spinach.

Ken’s Depression One Pot Pasta with Tuna and Cannellini Beans

  • 1 lb rigatoni
  • 1 can tuna in oil
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • olive oil
  • 3 TB dried onions
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1-2 TB red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 tsp dried parsley flakes
  • salt and pepper

    Thank God the seasonings were "free."

    Thank God the seasonings were “free.”

Bring a pot of water to boil.  Salt the water generously, add pasta and cook until al dente.  Reserve 1-2 cups cooking liquid for the sauce.  I think Ken was surprised when he asked how to save the pasta water and I handed him a large coffee mug and said “Dip it in, but try not to get any rigatoni in the water.”  I was going to drain the pasta since it was a big pot of boiling water, but he assured me “Mom, I’ve done this before with Dad.”  (I guess he’s not a little kid any more).

When pasta is close to done, prepare the sauce.  In a large pan, heat some olive oil over medium heat.  Add the tuna and beans and stir to warm, then add the garlic powder and dried onions.  Stir again to distribute seasonings.

Break up the tuna with a wooden spoon

Break up the tuna with a wooden spoon

Add the pasta and a little pasta water. When adding the pasta, Ken said “I have to get every piece out, Mom!  It’s the depression and we don’t have a lot of money for food!”  (I see why he likes his theater class so much).   Toss the pan contents, adding additional pasta water until you have a very light sauce.

I used about 1/2 cup of pasta water to make a light sauce

We used about 1/2 cup of pasta water to make a light sauce

Add red wine vinegar and toss again.

A little vinegar gives this dish some zing!

A little vinegar gives this dish some zing!

We finished the pasta with a little glug of California Ranch olive oil– I use it solely for finishing sauces or for dressings.  It has a wonderful rich flavor; Kurt and Ken are addicted to it (as am I).  Taste and correct for seasoning with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle the dried parsley flakes over the dish, toss one last time and serve.

At least I know Ken won't starve when he's on his own!

At least I know Ken won’t starve when he’s on his own!

Even with the dried seasonings, it was pretty tasty!

Depression-era Dinner-- not bad for under $5 for four!

Depression-era Dinner– not bad for under $5 for four!



Filed under Family, Food, Main Dishes

3 responses to “Ken’s History Project: Feeding a Family of Four During the Depression

  1. Margo Williams

    I love love love this assignment. I can’t even imagine Anne Williams doing this! She would have cooked her favorite – plain white rice and called it a meal!

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Pingback: Interesting Times, Especially for the Cowboy Culture | Land & Livestock International, Inc.

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