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COLUMN: Making use of what you have

Fruitcake cookies, made with substitute ingredients.
J.A Bolton

When my mom was a child, back in the 1930s, the effects of this country’s Great Depression were still very evident. It had filtered down to just about every household in America.

The average American family lived by the Depression-era motto: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.”

Back in this era, more folks lived on a rural farm than in today’s world. They might not have much financially but they were able to grow, gather, can, or salt down enough food to make it through.

Folks living in towns and large cities found food harder to come by. Soup kitchens and bread lines were an everyday way of survival during these hard times.

Even during World War II, things like sugar, chocolate, coffee, tires and gas were rationed out. These rationed items were going to help supply our service people during the war effort overseas.

Before World War II, most women didn’t work outside the home, leaving only one income from the husband’s job to support the family. When the husband got laid off or sent into service, the whole family suffered.

During the height of the Great Depression, about 13 to 15 million individuals were unemployed, many for the first time in their lives. This situation made it very hard for the average family to “make do.”

The term “soup kitchen” was originally applied to an army kitchen in the mid-19th century. By the late 19th century, the term “soup kitchen” was applied to kitchens run by charitable organizations to feed the hungry.

The term “breadline,” on the other hand, was not familiar in the U.S. until the early 1900s. Breadlines became more of a unique feature of the Great Depression as folks lined up on city sidewalks to receive loaves of bread.

The common belief of the 1930s, known as the “American Creed,” was that people were responsible for their own fates. That meant you took care of your own family by not depending on national, social or economic help. In other words, you had to be really bad off before you took handouts. Folks thought or felt that being needy meant that some serious character flaw existed.


When the family got really destitute, the man lowered his head and stood in food lines while the wife watched after the kids.

Sad and desperate stories were reported across the nation during the depression. In 1930, a Pennsylvania man was caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry children. He was so ashamed that he hung himself in his basement.

In rural areas, folks would search for wild greens such as poke salad, dandelions, wild berries, nuts and whatever else could be eaten. The family that owned a cow that gave milk had a precious possession.

Even though my mom’s large family, who lived in Richmond County, eventually lost their house and farm to the Federal Land Bank during the depression, they still managed to raise enough food to feed the family.

Mom said they kept a cow or two, some chickens, several hogs, and always raised a big garden to feed their family. She and her sisters would pick apples, pears, wild plums, blackberries, wild nuts and persimmons to make jellies, pies, and cakes and can the rest. She said when they butchered a hog, wasn’t anything thrown away but the hair and toenails.

My Granddaddy Ussery also kept beehives and made sorghum syrup, which the family used as a substitute for sugar. He and the boys also raised grains like corn and wheat to feed their animals and ground into flour and cornmeal to make their bread.

Mom said her family learned to use what they had and never wasted anything. As I was growing up, I wondered why Mom saved bread bags, paper sacks, cloth feed bags, pieces of cloth, seeds, and hardly ever threw anything away. She told me I could eat all I wanted but I was to make sure I ate everything on my plate. After I got older, I realized that Mom grew up in a generation that really knew what hard times were and used what they had. My wife and daughter say that I’ve still got a lot of my Mom’s hoarding habits but I prefer to call myself a “I might need it later” type of guy.

Why, just last week, my wife and I decided to make one more batch of fruitcake cookies even though we didn’t have exactly enough of the right ingredients. We used a lot of substitutions for the recipe. You know, those cookies didn’t have the pretty red, yellow or green candied fruit shining through as our previous batches had, but boy, were they good!

Remember, it’s not always what or how much you have, but it’s how you use what you’ve got in this life!

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released his new book “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Contact him at ja@jabolton.com. 


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