The dude cooks: Hamburger soup, Grandma, and the Great Depression

My grandmother told me often while I was in college that before I graduated she’d teach me “Depression cooking” — ways she learned during the Great Depression of making meals and dollars stretch as far as possible. “You won’t make much money at first,” she said. “You’ll be glad to know this.”

My grandmother, Kathryn Frederick, in 1977. This was so her style.

Grandma passed away before she could teach me. And then she was right: I didn’t make much money at first. I would have been glad to know Depression cooking.

Grandma loved to make special meals for her family. Many times I awoke to her frying lightly floured fish, freshly caught in the lake on which she lived. She’d also fry potatoes, dish up applesauce, and make toast. Breakfast bliss! Chicken paprikash was her specialty, but if she couldn’t get a certain brand of paprika imported from Hungary, she wouldn’t make it. And I am filled with deep feelings of pleasure and belonging remembering the Sundays she’d make a big pot of something and leave it on the stove on low. We’d just eat off it whenever we got hungry, as we played cards and told family stories all day. How bohemian!

Grandma was a cook of broad strokes. She cut ingredients into coarse chunks. She poured spices into her hand until the amount felt right, and dumped the contents into her pot. And somehow she always used two times as many pots and pans as were truly necessary. The sink always overflowed with dirty dishes.

A few years ago, in a refrigerator-cleaning fit, I found a package of hamburger on it’s expiration date and a drawer full of vegetables going soft. So I made soup out of it. I totally made it up as I went. But I channeled my grandmother: big chunks, spices measured into the hand, even too many pots as the first one I used was too small. It turned out delicious! And I’m sure Grandma would have nodded in Depression-era approval, for this soup costs relatively little and the recipe makes a lot.

Hamburger soup

1.5 pounds hamburger
4 c beef broth (Grandma might have used water; I like low-sodium stock)
1 onion, diced
3-4 stalks celery, sliced
Large can (28-30 oz) diced tomatoes, with juice
4-6 medium potatoes, skin on, cut into chunks (red potatoes add great color)
4-5 carrots, cut into chunks
1-2 c frozen green beans
Spices, to taste:
– Salt (I use kosher, pouring a mound into the center of my palm; I guess about 1 T)
– Ground pepper (a little: about 1 t)
– Garlic powder (mounded into my palm, about 1 T)
– Oregano (mounded into my palm, about 1 T)
– Dried parsley (for color; two mounds in my palm, about 2 T)

Fry the hamburger with the onion and celery. Drain the fat.

Combine with the rest of the ingredients into a large pot, and cook on medium-low for an hour or until the flavors come together.

There’s nothing sacrosanct about this recipe. You can use whatever vegetables you have on hand. Last time I made it, I chunked up a couple leftover parsnips and in they went. If I didn’t have any green beans, I’d probably throw in mixed vegetables. You could use macaroni instead of potatoes, if that’s more your thing. It’s not mine; I eat a gluten-free diet. But if you do it, add cooked macaroni in the last 15 minutes. And I’ll bet tarragon, cilantro, or basil would work equally as well as the oregano.


You get a colorful, flavorful, filling soup. And in case you wonder why I’m sharing a soup recipe in July rather than in a more soup-friendly month such as February, know that I made a double batch a couple weeks ago for a church pitch-in lunch and the pot emptied lickety-split. All year round, this is a pleasing, hearty meal.

Now that I think of it, next time I have the family over on a Sunday, I’ll have to leave a pot on the stove and break out the cards.


11 thoughts on “The dude cooks: Hamburger soup, Grandma, and the Great Depression

  1. nick says:

    Jim this is almost my recepe of my wednsdays special. I call it “all in” wich not only describes the process of cooking but also corresponds to the depression style cooking. But there have to mushrooms in it!
    And your grandma was so right about the paprika. Better leave them out if you can’t get decent ones.
    If you whant to give yourself a real treat go and find a butcher who makes fresh minced meat out of good meat and before adding the broth give the juice of half an orange, let it reduce, or if you haven’t got one add small teaspoon of honey. You’ll be surprised!
    This is going to turn into a cooking blog :=))

    • Nick, I love mushrooms; I’d bet they’d make a fine addition to my soup. The ideas about the orange and the honey are very intriguing!

    • That side of my family is all German, actually. So I’m not sure how Grandma picked up her paprika preferences!

      It is hard for me to wrap my mind around it being cold in July.

  2. Looks delicious! My maternal grandmother was a depression cook too. And like yours, she died before I was ready to pay attention to her recipes.

    One of the few she wrote down was for brown sugar pie. Grandma had a sweet tooth, and she made it regularly. I only bake one a couple of times a year, but a less expensive dessert (brown sugar, milk, butter, flour) is hard to find.

  3. Walter Czyz says:

    Her “Depression Cooking” sounds similar to how I survived through college. A lot of rice mixed with eggs. If I was lucky I mixed in chopped sausage. When you’re starving and mom’s not around to cook after being kicked out of the nest, this was very filling! I learned to cook out of necessity, figure out what flavors you like and mix in various ingredients as you go. I did this last night with only Polish sausage, worcestorshire sauce, lots of butter and water, chopped onions and tomatoes and Jasmine rice. Delicious!
    You should try making Alma’s American Chop Suey. I made this after watching the Walberg’s reality show last year. Yes, the Marky Mark Walberg’s. You’ll easily find the recipe online. It’s is very delicious!

    • I was fortunate to be on the meal plan at college. I had to fend for myself only weekend nights. I saved my work-study paychecks so I could buy canned soups and stews and stuff at the store. Once in a while, I ordered a pizza — big stuff when you made $3.35 an hour.

  4. Nancy ( Roe ) Stewart says:

    Nothing better than some good old homemade soup anytime of the year !! With some crusty bread to dip in it !! Yummy !!

    • I’m with you! Well, except for the bread. Gave that up four years ago and feel so much better. But that just means I eat more soup now!

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