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Grim's Grub: Starvation, stuff on a shingle and 'cream of' soups

Photo illustration, Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

With a slow cooker and cream of mushroom, chicken or celery soup, a busy homemaker can take the most random items from a pantry and convert them into a palatable dinner.

What is now a busy family mainstay was popularized as a Depression era necessity born of the "waste-not want-not" and "you'll eat what I put in front of you" mindsets of people all over who knew what it meant to be hungry.

Chipped beef probably existed before its debut in the 1910 "Manual for Army Cooks," but without the anecdotes from World Wars I and II soldiers it would probably have faded away into forgotten lore and history. It was a household staple between those wars.

During the Great Depression every meal needed to prioritize calories and nutrition over flavor, and nothing went to waste. The ingredients that were most available to cooks became a part of every meal.

Then-New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Temporary Emergency Relief Agency, which placed high priority on milk for hungry families. As a result, "Dann Woellert, Food Etymologist," says families in New York received 28 quarts of milk each week.

This gave birth to "cream of ..." and "chipped .... on toast" recipes simply because of milk's abundance. With milk, a mother could make dozens of variations on the same recipe (white sauce + anything + carbohydrate source = dinner). Carrots, peas, biscuits and chicken became Chicken à la King. Tuna, noodles and chips became Tuna Casserole. Dried beef, onions and bread became S.O.S.

Any ingredient could be enhanced and extended with white sauce made from milk. This made strong flavors like canned tuna or corned beef more palatable, extended the supply of less common meats and vegetables and overall added calories and nutrients to meals that were otherwise quite small.

White sauce meals were so common that in 1934, Campbell's Soup invented cream of mushroom soup. Perhaps without the Depression, this soup might not have caught on. It was cheap and pre-made and became a staple in kitchens everywhere.

While many of the old white sauce-based recipes fell by the wayside, cream of mushroom soup is still a miracle worker in the kitchen for the same reasons: versatility, simplicity, affordability.

Chipped on Toast

  • Bread (2 slices per person)
  • 2 tablespoons butter (plus more for spreading)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream (optional but recommended)
  • 2 cups milk
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-2 cups other ingredients (canned tuna, canned corned beef, peas, carrots, canned chicken, etc.)
  • Cheese, optional

Begin by toasting your bread. The more toasted the bread, the longer it will retain its texture under sauce. You can also form a barrier between the sauce and toast for a better texture if you smear the toast with butter. Cut these on a diagonal and arrange them on large plates, so that the corners meet in the middle and form a large square

In a saucepan, melt your butter and saute your onion, followed by garlic once the onion begins to turn translucent. Once the onion is tender, add your flour and stir thoroughly to form a roux. The longer the roux is cooked, the darker, more flavorful and thinner the sauce. I recommend a slight tan color.

Add milk, sour cream and seasonings, followed by your chosen ingredients.

Once the sauce has thickened with all ingredients, pour it over your plates of bread and top with cheese if desired.

Casserole with Cream Soup

  • 1 can condensed cream of soup
  • Medium onion
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • ½ cup milk (or sour cream for a richer, thicker sauce)
  • 1 cup vegetables (peas, carrots, onions, optional, depending on meat)
  • About 10 ounces meat (cooked chicken, tuna or cooked beef, for example)
  • 4 ounces (2 cups) cooked egg noodles
  • 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce, or Worcestershire sauce for stroganoff (optional)

Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Saute the onion in melted butter. Add the garlic once the onion is half melted. Combine all ingredients in a casserole dish and bake 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly.