Necessity is the mother of invention, and the old adage certainly pertains to some of the world’s most beloved foods.
Throughout time, scarcity has forced people to get creative in the kitchen, and innovative chefs have always found ways to create delicious recipes from what limited food they had access to, resulting in iconic foods we still eat today.
Here are a selection of the most famous dishes born of scarcity:
Louisiana red beans and rice
World War II saw the American government attempting to convince its citizens of the value of offal, which, the Huffington Post writes, American women “did not take kindly” to, despite the development and publication of recipes like fried pork brains and brain soufflé to encourage them. Instead, American women had long “preferred to use ‘stretchers’ to make their meat go further, and reduced waste by religiously using up leftovers,” a tendency that can be seen in one of New Orleans’ most iconic dishes, red beans and rice.
“We eat red beans and rice here on Mondays,” explains David Beriss, President of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. He recounts Monday was historically laundry day in New Orleans, so it was the perfect time to prepare the long-simmering combination of red beans and aromatics.
“You’re supposed to use a cracked ham bone to make it,” says Beriss, “And that cracked ham bone is supposed to come from your Sunday ham, assuming you have a Sunday ham.
“It’s definitely a way of stretching a cut of meat you would not otherwise use, and using it in a way that’s really economical.”
Red beans and rice, despite being a dish born of frugality, is just as popular today, and it’s far from the only example of such a recipe becoming a time-honored classic.
Ptitim (‘Israeli couscous’)
Lack of rice also led to the invention of ptitim – often called ‘Israeli couscous’ on menus outside of Israel. In the 1950s, during the austerity period in Israel, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion asked the Osem food company to create a starch that was cheaper than rice. The result was ptitim – more a pearl-shaped wheat pasta than actual couscous – which has since become a staple food in Israel and has even been elevated to gourmet status in the United States, where it is served in restaurants by top chefs.
Even the all-American casserole was born from scarcity; Andy Coe, co-author of A Square Meal, which examines the impact of the Great Depression on American diets, tells NPR about some of these first casseroles, explaining they were often comprised of pasta, vegetables, and a “white sauce” similar to a béchamel, that Coe says was “poured over everything for budget meals during the Great Depression.”
“You mix all these ingredients into a tray and bake it, and you have a kind of like thick, mushy, bland casserole,” he says.
So-called “desperation pies,” The History Bandits reports, were created “out of a seasonal ‘desperation’ more often than an economic one.” Desperation pies are often fruitless desserts like chess pie, a Southern classic made with flour, butter, sugar, and eggs; Amish shoofly pie, made with molasses; or vinegar pie, which replicates the natural acidic quality of fruit by adding apple cider vinegar to the mix. Mock apple pie – made with crackers soaked in cream of tartar, for acidity – or green tomato pie, in which unripe tomatoes stand in for apples, are arguably even more American than American apple pie.
Now that attention to seasonality is en vogue, these desperation pies are returning to the limelight; Bon Appétit reported in 2015 that James Beard Award-winning Chef Chris Shepherd had placed a vinegar pie on his seasonal, local menu at Underbelly. The pie, Bon Appétit noted, quickly became a staple and remained on the menu long after other dishes were rotated out.
Desserts were also affected by scarcity in Europe, with rather popular results. Due to cocoa rations in Italy during World War II, Piemontese pastry chef Pietro Ferraro began adding plentiful local hazelnuts to his chocolate recipes. He named the concoction after a popular Italian carnival character: Gianduja.
“The earliest version of Pasta Gianduja was sold as a foil-wrapped loaf that Italian mothers would slice and serve on bread,” explains Tori Avey, creator of the popular cooking and lifestyle blog ToriAvey.com and author of the PBS Food column The History Kitchen. “Clever children often ditched the bread and ate the gianduja alone (who can blame them?), so Ferrero altered the recipe a bit and began selling it in a jar as a spread, renaming it Supercrema Gianduja. The spread was eventually renamed Nutella in 1964.”
Some desserts of austerity have even become more popular than the original: most modern recipes for mince pie don’t contain the ground beef popular in the original version, at least in America. Instead they are made with dried fruit and spices, as they were during World War II due to beef rationing, according to NPR.
Fermented foods, long a standby of those without access to fresh food or refrigeration, are also experiencing a resurgence. “Fermented foods are a great example of how we deal with austerity, from either economics or the necessity of getting through the winter,” explains Dr. Julia Skinner, founder and director of Root.
Today, however, fermented foods are popular even among people with access to fresh produce; sauerkraut tops nearly every current food trend list, and these days, fermentation crocks retail for upwards of $100.
For generations who lived through times of austerity, such interest in foods that represent lack and struggle can be surprising. For others, however, holding onto these recipes is a sort of nostalgia: a way of remaining connected to the past through the simplest of dishes made with the humblest of ingredients and a touch of creativity.