Cooking with Collections: Poor Man’s Meal

For the past three and a half years, we have had a Facebook Live show called Cooking with Collections every month where we make a recipe from our collection and have staff taste test it. It has brought about some surprising recipes and tastes. During our Meet Me at the Fair exhibit a few years ago, we made several different recipes that were in cookbooks from World’s Fairs and shared them with you on the blog. During this time of quarantine, we wanted to bring to you some other recipes on our blog and decided to branch out a little bit. For this quarantine series, we will not be focusing on recipes in our collection or an exhibit at the Museum, but we will be focusing on recipes from times of hardship in the United States and throughout the world. 

First up, we have a recipe from the Great Depression called Poor Man’s Meal. The goal of this meal was to have a meal that was cheap and hearty – two big goals of any meal during the Great Depression. With people out of work, they needed a meal that could feed their family but do so cheaply. Enter the hot dog.   

Let’s head back to the beginning of this one. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago launched many now-famous food items, including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Heinz, and the hot dog! The Vienna beef hot dog made its debut at a stand operated by Austrian-Hungarian immigrants Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladany in the Old Vienna section of the Midway. These sausages sold for 10 cents, which would be around $2.87 today.   

Emil Reichel and Samuel Ladany sold their sausages for 10 cents at their stand in Old Vienna.
Arnold, C. D.; Higinbotham, H. D. Official Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition/Press Chicago Photo-Gravure Co., 1893 


Since their introduction, hot dogs have been a food of the working class, an inexpensive way to have a meal. But they really came into their own during the Great Depression. They were a cheap way to have a meal and feed a family. In fact, it is believed that the iconic Chicago Dog was created during the Great Depression. At just a nickel a piece, a person could have a fairly balanced meal with this type of hot dog featuring mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear, sports peppers, celery salt, and sometimes lettuce. It had everything you needed with meat, bread, and veggies all in one package for just 5 cents! 


Not only were vendors out selling inexpensive meals using the hot dog, people would also use hot dogs at home to make inexpensive meals. Potatoes were also inexpensive and used extensively. Some meals even used both. One of these meals was called the Poor Man’s Meal. It combined potatoes, onions, and hot dogs into one hearty, inexpensive dish, which was perfect for the hard times people had fallen on. 




Hot Dogs 

Oil, Salt, Pepper 


I recreated this meal, which was extremely simple as well as inexpensive. First, you peel and cube a potato. Normally, I avoid peeling potatoes, but that is what the recipe called for. I believe you could certainly leave the skins on, but my goal was to be as authentic as possible. I used 4 small red potatoes, but you can use any kind of potato you prefer and any amount you think is sufficient to feed your family. Then you chop up an onion. I used one large sweet onion, but you can use any kind you have and any amount you think is suitable for your family again. Once everything is chopped, you cook the potatoes and onions in oil until they soften and brown. I also threw some salt and pepper on while cooking these. The recipe didn’t call for these, but I figured most people would have seasoned this in some way if at all possible, so I went ahead and added some seasoning. Once those are done, you add the chopped hot dogs and cook everything together for a few more minutes. I used 4 hot dogs, but again, you can use any amount you see fit. And there you have it! A simple, hearty, inexpensive meal! 


Now, I am sure you are wondering how it tasted. While I am home during this time of quarantine, my taste testers are very limited. So unlike our grand taste tests at the Museum, I have 2.5 people including myself. My husband and my 14-month-old make up my taste test crew, although the latter can’t always participate so we will call him the .5 taste tester. So what did we think of it? The adults thought it wasn’t bad, but it was somewhat bland. Ketchup helped a bit. And lucky for us, ketchup was readily used during the Great Depression, so it was something that we were able to add to it. The child loved it, especially with the ketchup. 

So there you have it. A simple, hearty, inexpensive meal that is worth giving a try if you are interested or you have run out of things to make with grocery stockpile. You could even put your own spin on it with different spices or meats. If you give this recipe a try at home, let us know how it turns out! We would love to hear from you!     

2020-04-15T17:16:57-05:00April 15th, 2020|

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