My stomach was still unhappy with me the day after I ate my first Depression era dinner. A 1929 recipe, this simple dish predates the worst hardships of the Depression. I picked it, in part, because it’s similar to “Hoover stew” served in soup kitchens later in the 1930s. The most obvious difference between these recipes is the heart-stopping amount of butter Macaroni Enrico calls for. Butter isn’t the only animal-based product in the recipe — it also calls for ham and cheese. The appetite for animal fats and proteins in the American diet rose dramatically around the turn of the century, partially due to increasingly robust international trade routes and improved methods of preservation, like refrigerated ships (or “reefers”). Contemporary science supported this shift towards animal proteins and fats, believing that they were healthier than vegetables.
While the appetite for butter, eggs, cheese, and meat stayed constant, they became a luxury for people either out of work or facing regional food scarcity in the Dustbowl states. Lots of recipes from this time period (especially desserts) find creative substitutes or ways to stretch expensive ingredients. Slugburgers, which I’ll talk more about in another post, mix ground meat with cheaper ingredients like potatoes, wheat, or soybeans. This recipe would have been shockingly indulgent after 1929 with a whopping 1 – 4 cups (eight sticks) of butter.
I considered cutting the butter while I was prepping ingredients. Even one stick of butter seemed like too much for contemporary tastes, but in the spirit of historical accuracy, I went with a whole cup. The start of the recipe should be familiar to anyone who’s ever made macaroni and cheese — boiling the pasta in salted water. Quick culinary tips: salting the water doesn’t make it boil faster, it just adds flavor. Don’t cook the pasta further than al dente, since it will keep cooking in the sauce.
While the pasta is cooking (stirring regularly to make sure it doesn’t clump), melt the butter in a large pan on medium and whisk in the flour. This is known as a “roux” in classical French cooking, although French style cooking wouldn’t really be popular with the general public in the U.S. until people like Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher made it accessible after World War II. Once the roux is smooth, mix in the stock (I used beef), tomato juice, and seasoning. Dump in the pasta and turn up the heat to high for a minute or two. Stir thoroughly, turn off heat, and add chopped ham and cheese.
Just as I expected, this turned out extremely rich and filling. Other than the tomato juice (which I could barely taste in the finished product), this is pretty similar to a modern mac & cheese. I would definitely cut the butter at least by half if I made this again. In a future post, I will prepare and compare a similar dish “Hoover stew” from later in the Great Depression.
1-2 pounds elbow macaroni [I used 1 lb]
1-4 cups butter [I used one cup, or two standard sticks]
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup stock [I used beef]
1 cup tomato juice
Salt and pepper [I used a teaspoon of each]
Paprika [I used a teaspoon]
1 cup chopped cooked ham
1-2 cups grated cheese [I used 1 cup of cheddar]
- Boil macaroni in salted water for as long as the box directs; drain
- Melt butter in a large pan on medium heat; stir in flour until smooth (2-3 minutes)
- Gradually add stock and tomato juice, stirring constantly (5 minutes)
- Add cooked macaroni; stir until thoroughly mixed (5 minutes)
- Add ham and cheese right before serving