Clara Cannucciari, now 93 and a great-grandmother, grew up so poor that they couldn’t afford to buy socks. Born in Chicago in 1915 to Sicilian immigrant parents, Clara, her brother Sam, and her parents struggled through the Great Depression like so many other families, “but we survived”.
Clara began Marywood High School in Chicago, only to have to quit after her sophomore year as there wasn’t enough money to buy clothes and food. She began working in Richardson factory doing secretarial work to bring home money for the family. In the mid 1930’s she started at Hostess filling Twinkies.
“I gained weight during the Depression, but it wasn’t from eating Twinkies! My mother taught me to make filling meals with just a few ingredients. It became a fun game to see how many different concoctions we could come up with using as few ingredients as possible,” says the affable Clara, whose feisty smile draws you in and makes you want to sit down at her table to share her meals as well as her stories.
Her father would buy a sack of potatoes and it would have to last the family an entire week. The sack cost $1 - a lot of money back then. They’d eat potatoes boiled, with pasta, fried, or with eggs. Clara’s coveted lunch was the pepper-egg sandwich. The Cannucciari family ate a lot of these “Poor Man’s Meals” during the Depression and no one was better at stretching those dollars than Clara’s mother. Today when Clara opens the cupboards and stares at the boxes and cans of pre-packaged foods, spices, condiments and cooking supplies, Clara mind reels with ideas on how a box of pasta can be stretched into two meals, or how adding a few spices can completely change the flavor of a meal so that even if you’re eating your fourth meal of potatoes in a row, you’d always be tasting something different.
Thus Clara amassed a collection of recipes - some so simple they have but two ingredients, like her egg drop soup - which consists of an egg and water. In the margins is a note reminding to put the lid on and turn the stove off to let the heated water continue the cooking process while saving on gas, a habit to which she still adheres. The family would gather around the stove to keep warm and Clara remembers these moments with her family fondly.
“Today’s generation has no idea how easy they have it. They whine and complain too much,” says Clara emphatically. “Meat was very expensive and rare, and a big treat when we had it. It was very thin, not thick at all. We didn’t know what ‘thick’ meant. When we were sick, we’d like meat with lemon juice. Sometimes we’d even fake being sick so we’d get some meat with lemon juice. That happened many times. My mother would call the doctor and say ‘Ah, she’s ok, nothing’s wrong with her.’ So we’d have to get out of bed and live a normal life. That’s how bad the Depression was.”
In 1948 Clara married Dino Cannucciari, an opera singer, in Rome, and in 1950 had one son, Carl. She now has four grandchildren and two great grandchildren, and she lives in the Finger Lakes region in New York.
As today’s economy has shifted back towards frugality, Clara has found herself to be a hit on the internet. Her grandson, filmmaker Chris Cannucciari, began taping Clara in her kitchen as she talked about how to stretch those dollars and cook cheap but filling meals as well as filling him in on family history. Her meals average about fifty cents a person, and consist of recipes such as pasta and peas, lots of potato dishes (natch!) and she liberally sprinkles the stories with her own accounts of growing up in the Depression era.
When Chris uploaded the first video to YouTube, neither one of them had any idea what a big hit Clara would become!
We got a chance to talk with Clara and her grandson about her new-found internet fame as a recessionista foodie. Each of her videos is around 7 minutes long and demonstrates how to make everything from Sicilian Fig Cookies, Peppers & Eggs, pasta, and of course, potatoes! The recipes are great, but the stories she tells in between are even better. Bon appétit!
Q: How did you first get on YouTube? Who put up the video?
A: My Grandson, Christopher, filmed me and put the cooking lessons on the internet two years ago.
Q: How did it start to become an internet sensation?
A: After the economy started to fall more people became curious about what we used to eat during the depression. Then media became curious.
Q: How did you feel when you reached your first 100,000 viewers on your videos?
A: I can't believe that many people wanted to see me. It's very strange really. If I knew that many people would watch I would have put on a better shirt.
Q: How did the website come about?
A: My grandson Christopher made that as well
Q: What the funniest and/or most touching email you’ve gotten from a fan?
A: I like it when people say that I look young, those are my favorite. One man wrote: "Bless you Clara and family. I'm a muslim and love your shows. Hope you have a beautiful afterlife." That was nice.
Q: How do you feel now that we’ve entered in another recessionary period and your frugal tips and advice is so timely & relevant? (e.g. bittersweet mixed emotions…)
A: I really hope that the young people don't have to experience what we had to do. It was very bad. I hope that the economy improves very soon.
Q: Anything else for your readers and viewers?
A: Beginning this fall I will have new episodes on youtube.com
The book is now available for pre-ordering on Amazon.com, it's called "Clara's Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression"
Clara’s website: www.greatdepressioncooking.com
Clara’s blog: www.greatdepressioncooking.com/Depression_Cooking/Blog.html
Clara’s Facebook page:
YouTube Videos: www.youtube.com/user/DepressionCooking
Thank you Clara, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Kristen Kuhns and Story of My Life®