During the bleak years of the Great Depression, a shadow hung over much of the world. With the economy in freefall, many families struggled to put food on the table — let alone luxuries such as cake. And in these uncertain times, cooks turned to increasingly creative ideas, using ingredients that’d turn your stomach today.
In 1930s America, unemployment lines stretched around the block and cupboards were bare, even in the wealthiest of cities. Ingredients such as butter and eggs were also in short supply.
But instead of denying themselves the joy of eating cake, cooks around the country came up with a bizarre solution.
So what exactly did Americans use to create this bewildering confection? Was it an old-fashioned foodstuff that’s obsolete and almost forgotten today? Or something altogether more grim?
Well, sometimes referred to as Mystery Cake, it’s a recipe borne from times of hardship that’s surprisingly stood the test of time.
In fact, several modern-day recipes are surprisingly similar to Mystery Cake — though they omit the weirdest of its ingredients.
And some brave cooks have even attempted to recreate the original recipe in all its questionable glory. But this Depression-era staple might be just a little too strange for modern tastes.
For families across America, the 1920s ended very differently to how they began. Initially, it was a period of economic and industrial prosperity; a post-war boom that saw levels of disposable income rise.
And at the same time, new discoveries and technologies were changing the way that everyday people led their lives.
When it came to the dinner table, this meant a newfound interest in nutrition, with greater consumption of vegetables and fruits than ever before.
Then, in 1922 Clarence Birdseye pioneered the concept of frozen food, opening up a whole new world of possibilities. But what the Roaring Twenties perhaps most instilled in American cuisine was a love of all things sweet.
From popsicles and Kool-Aid to the iconic Babe Ruth bar, some of the country’s favorite indulgences were thought up during this era.
And in home kitchens, housewives were experimenting with a number of recipes for cakes and desserts. Then, just as waistlines were growing across the country, the Great Depression hit.
In September 1929 the American stock market began to crash, taking with it much of the optimism that’d characterized the decade. And as their assets plummeted in value, consumers tightened their belts.
Then, to make matters worse, a drought ruined much of the country’s farmland, decimating the agricultural sector.
In the end, it was a crisis that’d spread out around much of the world, continuing right up to — and being in part responsible for — the chaos of World War II.
But when we think of the Great Depression, it tends to be images of the American public that most readily spring to mind.
From snapshots of endless unemployment queues to mothers hanging their heads in desperation, these are the victims of the Great Depression whom we remember today.
And behind the scenes, most American families were doing everything they could to make ends meet. Predictably, the indulgent culinary delights of the 1920s were among the first things to go.
Ever enterprising, though, Americans came up with some excellent methods for feeding their families on a budget — even as familiar items began to disappear from the shelves.
Fresh meat, for example, became increasingly difficult to obtain and home cooks turned to cheese, beans, and processed foods to fill the gap.
Take, for example, the dish known as Hoover stew, which became a staple of the Great Depression’s many soup kitchens.
Named after Herbert Hoover, the unfortunate president who held office during the start of this disastrous era, its main ingredients were macaroni, hot dogs, and canned tomatoes. Sometimes, beans or canned corn were also added into the mix.
As the economic downturn continued, women’s magazines and radio shows advised housewives on how to make their food purchases go as far as possible.
Casseroles, it seems, were commonly recommended as a frugal way to feed the family, as were rather more bizarre dishes such as chipped beef served with a side of toast.
Often, though, families ate entire meals without meat — something that would’ve been unusual for the time.
One popular dish that arose within the Pennsylvania Dutch community, for example, was simply a combination of bread, asparagus, and egg. Soups also allowed home cooks to stretch meager rations across multiple meals.
In an attempt to bulk out lackluster main meals, many cooks got inventive with their sides, making the most of what items were left on the shelves.
As a result, dishes such as potato pancakes and cornbread often made an appearance on the dinner table, along with whatever vegetables happened to be in season.
Sometimes, when cupboards were really empty, families even turned to foraging and took to the fields to gather ingredients for a dandelion salad. Mostly, though, tables were filled with odd inventions that’d certainly alarm diners today.
From onions stuffed with peanut butter to overcooked spaghetti with boiled carrots, it was a minefield of culinary experimentation.
But one of the most difficult things for cooks to cope with was the lack of staple products such as butter, eggs, and fresh fruit.
Of course, families hadn’t forgotten the surplus of sweet treats that’d characterized the boom years before the Depression. Without the key ingredients, though, these recipes were difficult to recreate.
Difficult, yes — but not impossible, of course. And in the same spirit that housewives stretched out ingredients and invented novel ways to feed their families, they applied this creativity to desserts as well.
Soon, all manner of new recipes were spreading across the country, allowing families to indulge their sweet tooth in economical ways.
Take, for example, the Ritz apple pie, made using the famous brand of crackers as a substitute for fruit, which was hard to come by during the Great Depression.
Or the rather disgusting-sounding vinegar cobbler, which used fermented juice instead of fruit. Weirdly, both recipes remain popular within certain circles even today.
But it was in their approach to cakes that the American housewives really came into their own.
Undeterred by a lack of basic staples, they developed countless recipes that still managed to satisfy sugar cravings around the country — sometimes using ingredients as strange as tomato soup. Many of these inventions are still treasured today, though, almost 100 years down the line.
One of the most popular recipes has even acquired the predictable nickname Depression cake over the years.
Typically, it was made without butter, milk, or eggs and instead used of ingredients such as molasses, baking soda, and generic fats. And despite the pared-down approach, it reportedly tasted delicious.
Another popular dessert recipe created during the Great Depression was known as wacky cake. Again made without any dairy products, this confection used vinegar and baking soda as a substitute for butter and eggs.
And according to reports, the result was light, fluffy, and surprisingly appealing — with no trace of acidic flavors.
But if the idea of a vinegar cake turns your stomach, you mightn’t want to hear about another popular dessert recipe used during the Great Depression.
Tinted a bizarre orange-pink shade, this item was created with something we’d never dream of putting in a dessert today. What was it, though?
Shockingly, the secret ingredient was tomato soup. And yes, it’s exactly as weird as it sounds.
In the absence of more traditional foodstuffs, it seems, resourceful housewives were liberally pouring tins of condensed savory liquid into their homemade cakes. But was the result even palatable? And what do culinary connoisseurs make of it today?
According to reports, tomato soup cake actually predates the Great Depression, with the first recipes appearing in print sometime in the early 1920s. Back then, they were basic confections, usually consisting of just one layer and without frosting of any kind.
And though some believe that the recipe was first brought to America by Irish immigrants, its origins have probably been lost to time.
But why tomato soup? Well, according to Susan Reid, who works for the King Arthur Baking Company as a researcher, it’s all about the pH of this unlikely ingredient.
Speaking to Atlas Obscura in March 2022, she explained, “Spice cake recipes from turn-of-the-century cookbooks call for early forms of baking soda, which require an acid and the presence of heat to create a reaction that generates carbon dioxide bubbles.”
“Tomato soup being acidic, it provided the acid to make that reaction occur,” Reid continued. And after the Great Depression hit, this frugal approach to cake-making quickly found favor across the nation.
As households struggled to make ends meet, tinned tomato soup was one of the few ingredients that wasn’t in short supply.
“Fat can be replaced by puréed fruit and vegetables — the condensed soup qualifies for that — which is why it’s easy to see how reaching for a pantry staple in a time of shortages occurs,” Reid added.
Eventually, the cake became so popular that the Campbell Soup Company released an official recipe for steamed nut and fruit pudding made with their classic tomato variety.
Then, in December 1941 the U.S. became involved in World War II and rationing hit the cupboards of the American public.
With eggs and butter once again off the menu — or limited to very small amounts — tomato soup cake was now an even more popular way to enjoy baked goods. And when you think about it, perhaps the recipe isn’t as strange as it might seem at first.
After all, World War II rationing also gave birth to the carrot cake. With sugar limited to fewer than 20 tablespoons a week, the sweet vegetable became a handy replacement in many kitchens across America.
And even today, almost 80 years after restrictions ended, it’s a recipe still enjoyed by health fanatics and foodies around the world.
In fact, even after the demise of rationing in mid-1945 tomato soup cake remained surprisingly popular across America. And four years later, a recipe appeared in the prestigious pages of The New York Times.
As time went on, the economy began to boom once more and elaborate touches were added to the once-humble confection.
During the 1950s, various alterations added sweet frostings to the original recipe, making the most of products that were now in abundance.
By this point, the life of the housewife was changing and convenience foods were liberating her from long hours spent slaving over a stove. In response, pre-made mixes by companies such as Pillsbury and Betty Crocker were often incorporated into tomato soup cake.
And from 1951 onwards, Campbell’s began promoting a series of variations on their original confection, including upside down and chocolate versions.
Then, in 1960 the company printed a recipe on the side of its soup cans for the first time. As you might have guessed, it featured the now-classic tomato soup cake.
Around this time, the recipe also caught the attention of the American poet Sylvia Plath. A strong advocate of women’s rights, she remained a keen baker who’s said to have created delicacies at an almost alarming rate.
And to many, the strange concept of tomato soup cake will forever be linked with the doomed writer.
During 1964, a year after Plath’s death, the recipe appeared in her favorite culinary book, Joy of Cooking.
In reference to this strange ingredient, the text noted, “The deep secret is tomato, which after all is a fruit.” And in this publication, the delicacy was referred to as “Mystery Cake.”
Finally, in 1966 a sort of ultimate tomato soup cake emerged, complete with cream-cheese frosting and spices such as nutmeg and mace.
And it’s this recipe that modern chefs still turn to whenever they feel like recreating this Depression-era classic. Surprisingly, thay happens more often than you might think.
In fact, according to Campbell’s, the recipe’s viewed an astonishing 65,000 times a year on the firm’s website. And from time to time, an influencer will focus on the quirky cake, resulting in a surge of popularity among the baking community.
But why’s such an odd-seeming confection still being made, several decades after the Great Depression forced cooks to get creative in the kitchen?
Well, according to most fans, the answer’s simple: tomato soup cake actually tastes good. When food writer Nancy Mock recreated the recipe for the cookery magazine Taste of Home, she was pleasantly surprised by the results.
In a 2021 article, she wrote, “If you like spice cake or old-fashioned carrot cake, then you’ll definitely enjoy this one — and I did, too!”
“Tomato soup really does keep the cake moist and the blend of spices is lovely,” Mock continued. Later, she added that even though she could taste the savory flavor slightly, it didn’t detract from her enjoyment.
And speaking to Scribol in July 2022, food blogger Christy Eats enthused, “It tastes just like Christmas cake!”
Like Mock, Christy commented that the tomato soup does a great job of keeping the cake moist. She added, “The people I gave it to never guessed the secret ingredient.”
This Depression-era confection, then, seems as if it’s here to stay, surprising the dinner party guests of generations to come.