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Depression-less Cooking with Clara

Christopher Cannucciari
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At this point, nobody’s denying it: The economy sucks. But as far as I’m concerned, the government can keep its bailout packages and stimulus plans-I’ve got Clara. She’s my new favorite 90-something-year-old woman who, in a near-clairvoyant move, started a video series on YouTube called “Depression Cooking with Clara” in 2007. I’ve been watching (and re-watching) her episodes for the last few weeks, and I have to say, I am absolutely smitten.

Clara makes dishes like Pasta with Peas, Peppers and Eggs, and the most unsavory-looking Egg Drop Soup in the world. Apparently, her famous “Poorman’s Meal” gets her grandson and all his friend’s chowing down at her kitchen table, but I’m not sure I’d be lining up for it. Just about everything Clara makes starts with potatoes and onions and usually includes eggs, pasta, something canned, or even…hot dogs (gasp!)

To be honest, it’s really not about her cooking. It’s the stories she tells while shakily prepping her ingredients or stirring her soups, the photo albums she shares while the pasta’s boiling.  In her weak, age-hoarse voice, she tells us how her brother once put a garter snake in an envelope addressed to her and left it in the mailbox, how she had to quit high school because they couldn’t afford stockings for her. She proudly recounts how her father stoically refused the bootleggers who came through town trying to rent their garage to make liquor, and how the police swept through the neighborhood smashing the bootlegger’s barrels and filling the streets with whiskey. Amazingly, she remembers something so small as a disappointing lunch trade: her delicious pepper and egg sandwich for two pieces of bread with nothing but spaghetti between them.

Certainly, part of the reason I just adore her is that she reminds me so much of my grandmother. If you pay attention, you’ll catch a glimpse of the strange knick-knacks in her kitchen (look for the winking owl), and most of her pots and pans look like they’re made of tin or covered in white enamel with floral patterns on them. Does everyone over the age of 80 have those exact same pans?! But what struck me the most is that she cuts and dices everything just the way Granny does-with a skinny little knife, in her hands! I’ve never seen anyone else do this. Clara explains in episode 4 that she never uses a cutting board, because they could never afford “luxuries” like that. Can you imagine a world in which a cutting board, not a pair of stilletos or a new purse, is considered a luxury? Wild.

Clara also makes some interesting points about the food they used and why they used it. Hot dogs, for example, were certainly cheaper than ‘real’ meat, but more importantly, they were already cooked so they took no extra gas to fry. When making Pasta with Peas, she brings it to a boil and then turns off burner, covers the pot, and lets it cook in the residual heat. They even saved the seeds from bell peppers to plant and raise for the next year. Every little tiny bit helped, I guess.

Ironically enough, watching Clara’s Depression cooking videos has done nothing but cheer me up. Her quirky stories and no-nonsense food (no matter how unpalatable it may look) has made me realize that, as a nation, we’ve lived through this before-and we’ll do it again. The Depression indelibly marked its survivors with a reverence for value and frugality, and a resourceful nature that would put McGuyver to shame. Couldn’t we all stand to learn a little about that?

Who knows, in a year I’ll probably be rinsing and re-using ziploc bags, clipping coupons, growing my own vegetables, and really thinking about what I buy and eat, and how I live my life. I hope so, Clara.

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