Osher Class Examines Depression-Era Foodways

  • During the Great Depression, milk was at the top of the food hierarchy. (Courtesy Martha Esersky Lorden)

  • An ad for Ritz crackers from 1934. (Courtesy Martha Esersky Lorden)

  • A 1937 ad for Spam, one of the many prepared foods to emerge from the Depression era. (Courtesy Martha Esersky Lorden)

  • A farm family gathers for dinner. The Great Depression shaped America’s food and farming landscape for generations to come. Hanover resident Martha Esersky Lorden will teach a class on Depression-era food on Jan. 23 and 24 in Lebanon. (Courtesy Martha Esersky Lorden)

  • Martha Esersky Lorden, culinary historian and food writer, at her home in Hanover, N.H. on Jan. 5, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Correspondent
Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Imagine a crumbly pie crust that tastes a little salty and a little sweet, and has the soft, flaking quality of a phyllo. Is it made from flour, vegetable shortening and butter? Flour and lard? The texture and flavor is subtly different from the usual but you can’t quite put your finger on why.

In the case of the mock apple pie that sits on a counter in the kitchen of food writer and historian Martha Esersky Lorden, you are in for a few surprises.

The pie, which became popular during the Great Depression, includes none other than Ritz crackers, which were introduced by Nabisco in 1934. The filling, which looks and tastes like apple, turns out to be nothing of the kind: In addition to the crackers, it’s a sugar syrup mixture flavored with lemon juice and lemon rind.

Lorden includes the mock apple pie as an example of the ingenuity that characterized American cooking during the 1930s in an upcoming Osher at Dartmouth class on the history of food during the Great Depression.

The two-day program, titled “New Deal Square Meal,” takes place on Jan. 23 and 24 at the Culinary Learning Center at the Lebanon Co-op. The classes will include samplings of food and drink popular during the era.

If you want to understand a culture, how and what people ate is probably one of the most immediate ways of gleaning insight, Lorden said. She calls it “the taste of the past. What did it taste like? It matters.”

Lorden, who retired in 2012 from Hanover High School, where she taught history, has led five previous classes for Osher on the food of Ancient Rome; Shakespeare’s table; what the Lewis and Clark expedition ate on their trek west to the Pacific Ocean; dining on trains during the heyday of the transcontinental railroad; and the food of the 1950s.

She also is a professional reviewer of cookbooks for Publishers Weekly and has her own food blog, outtathekitchen.com. Her interest in food history can be traced partially to her studies in anthropology and archaeology as an undergraduate at Princeton, and also earned a Master of Arts in teaching from Brown University.

But the upcoming class on the food of the Depression really has its roots in Lorden’s own family history. Lorden grew up in Claremont, surrounded by food and the business of food.

Her grandparents, Edith and Thomas Esersky opened Ward 7 Bakery in Claremont’s lower village. They were members of the city’s once-thriving Jewish population, and Edith made a black rye bread that sold well to Claremont’s large Polish and Russian populations. She was also famous for her meat pies. The bakery expanded into groceries and dry goods and by the 1920s became Esersky’s Hardware. Martha’s father, Joe Esersky, was a great cook who loved making jelly doughnuts, Lorden said in an interview in her Hanover home.

“My Dad had, I guess, the gene,” she said.

A cousin, Joyce Goldstein, also has the cooking gene: She is a well-known writer on California, Mediterranean and Jewish cuisines.

Lorden, 61, was raised in an atmosphere heavily influenced by the Depression-era values that shaped 20th-century New England. Waste not, want not. Be inventive with what you have. Reuse, reuse, reuse. She is drawing on both family history and culinary history to tell the story of how the Depression formed many Americans’ ideas of what good cooking was — and what role, if any, government should play in formulating food policy.

Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables, Jello, Spam, macaroni and cheese, canned soup, food stamps, Fritos, Twinkies, catch-all casseroles — all were introduced during the Depression, as was the idea that the federal government can and should intervene to alleviate hunger and malnutrition arising from poverty. What we think of now as the food industry also began to come of age during the New Deal.

In 1933, when 25 percent of the population was out of work, and photographs of soup kitchens and bread lines were imprinted in the public imagination, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal swept into office with the promise, Lorden said, that “you can feed people, you can feed the masses.”

We take it as an article of faith now, but such an assumption didn’t exist in American politics before then. And this brought about a central paradox. Even as malnutrition and poverty drove many Americans to a desperate state, and the lack of a national infrastructure kept food from getting to where it was needed, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 paid farmers to destroy crops.

“The legacy of the Depression is very strong,” Lorden said. “Hunger is still a huge issue, although malnutrition is not as prevalent.”

There is some irony in the fact that many Americans are now suspicious of government intervention in and regulation of the food and agricultural industries, Lorden said.

“People think they’re being ripped off and duped, but without that (Depression-era) government intervention, many people would not have made it through.”

Perhaps as important in an analysis of the American food system is our own tortured relationship with food, which inevitably seems to focus on “good” foods versus “bad” foods, heroes and villains, organic versus “conventional,” diet and dieting. While there has been a renewed interest in the health and integrity of the food chain, and the survival of the small farmer, there have been other more deleterious results.

With the post-war shift to fast food, and, in recent decades, the celebrity deification of restaurants and chefs, Lorden said, food has become a “trend, it’s a fashion, not necessarily sustenance.”

We have met the enemy and he is us, might be another way of putting it.

“We’ve lost the behaviors and rituals that are appropriate for healthy eating. There is a lack of respect for good eating habits. It’s our behavior, not the food itself,” said Lorden.

Mock Apple Pie

Mystery pies and cakes were all the rage in the Depression era. Tomato soup, sauerkraut, and mayonnaise were often incorporated into baked confections as tasty substitutions for more expensive ingredients. The secret ingredient here is Ritz Crackers, introduced in 1937 and considered an affordable yet glamorous food product.

Pastry for 2-crust 9-inch pie (see below)

36 Ritz crackers, coarsely broken (about 1¾ cups) 

2 cups water 

2 cups sugar 

2 teaspoons cream of tartar 

2 tablespoons lemon juice 

Grated zest of 1 lemon 

2 tablespoons butter or margarine 

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Roll out bottom crust and fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Place cracker crumbs in prepared crust. Combine water, sugar and cream of tartar in saucepan, boil gently for 15 minutes, until reduced to about 1½ cups of syrup. Add lemon juice and zest, then let the mixture cool. 

Pour syrup over crackers, dot generously with butter or margarine and sprinkle with cinnamon. Cover with top crust. Trim and flute edges together. Cut slits in top crust to let steam escape. Bake at 425 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, until crust is crisp and golden.

Grandma’s Pie Crust

Makes enough for three crusts.

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups shortening

1 tablespoon vinegar

½ cup cold water

Mix together dry ingredients. Cut in shortening with flour till size of large bread crumbs. Add the vinegar to the water, then pour liquid into the dry ingredients and combine until dough comes together. Place in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 20-30 minutes. Roll into two 9-inch crusts.

Martha Esersky Lorden’s class, “New Deal Square Meal” takes place on Jan. 23 and 24 at the Culinary Learning Center at the Lebanon Co-op, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., both days. There is a $40 fee, and a $36 lab fee. For information and to register call 603-646-0154 or go to osher@dartmouth.edu.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.


Ritz crackers are an ingredient in the filling for mock apple pie. An earlier version of th is story inaccurately described how the crackers are used in the making of the pie.