White Sauce: The ‘Nutritious’ Hero of Depression Food




Who can forget tuna noodle casserole?   It’s one of those economic family casseroles we all grew up with.   It’s so simple, with only three ingredients: canned tuna, a package of egg noodles, and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. It was creamy, filling and could feed a normal family of five, especially on a Lenten Friday.


Today , cream of mushroom soup is the ubiquitous casserole binder.   Known in Minnesota as “Lutheran Binder,” it’s the key component of any the state’s famous hot dishes.   It’s also been nicknamed the American bechamel. I wouldn’t go that far.


Campbells’s introduced their Cream of Mushroom Soup in 1934, at the height of the Depression. And, there was good reason.   It was a cheap, pre-made white sauce.


Considered the standard for covering otherwise naked foods in an ivory cloak, white sauce was poured over vegetables, cold meats, seafoods, eggs, and pasta.   It tempered flavors that were too strong on their own.   White sauce was the cream in creamed chicken, creamed cod, creamed sweetbreads, and creamed tongue on toast – YUCK!


White sauce enriched purees, thickened soups, bound croquettes, and was the key component in anything scalloped.  Mmm – scalloped liver!


In August of 1931, New York Gorvernor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a law creating the Temporary Emergency Relief Agency, or TERA, in response to the Depression. It was the first time in our nation’s history where a state took it upon themselves to feed the hungry.   A thirty page manifesto describing the food relief policy was distrubted to officials across the state. A TERA diet was concocted, which put milk at the top of the nutritional food groups. TERA mandated one quart of milk a day for children, and one pint for adults.   The typical TERA family received 28 quarts of milk each week.   Some was intended for drinking, while the rest was intended for cooking – i.e. white sauce casseroling.


Home economists used white sauce to pump nutrients into the American diet.   The standard white sauce was two tablespoons each of butter and flour and one cup of nutritious milk.   So anything meatless and starchy, with a white sauce was considered healthfood in the Depression.  That would sort of be like calling pizza health food because it had cheese on top.   Dishes like creamed carrots, which is white sauce mixed with carrots and noodles, were found in relief agencies guidelines and recommended across America.


When Campbell’s introduced their ‘canned white sauce’ in the form of Cream of Mushroom soup, housewives across the country included it into their meals.   It was the heroic and nutritious white sauce that would conceal and bind their cheap ingredients into a palatable meal.   And it forever became the standard American casserole binder. With the amount of msg, salt, and preservatives in a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, today we would not consider it a nutritious adder.   You can make your own fresh cream of mushroom soup in less than an hour without any additives – an hour your heart will thank you for.



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