The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition, Episode 34 – Depression Era Week

Welcome back, friends, to The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! Since America’s economic downturn, which was followed closely by the pandemic, recreating dishes from The Great Depression has become more popular than ever. Join us this week as our bakers attempt to scratch out recipes from meager ingredients as we journey back in time for Depression Era Week!

From 1929 to 1939, the United States suffered the worst economic crisis it has ever known. What would come to be called The Great Depression started as a stock market crash which crushed Wall Street, then the United States, then most of the developed world. Economies fell like dominoes, nations were pauperized, and people soon found our just how nasty food could get before they wouldn’t eat it.

Soup is a solid strategy for avoiding starvation. It takes a small amount of ingredients and turns them into a large amount of hot food that is easily digested and at least temporarily filling. Plus, all the nutrients stay right there in the pot, so as little nutritional value as possible is lost during cooking. But we wanted to stay true to our baking roots, so the bakers eschewed soups for some other, more… interesting options.

Before we get to the competition proper, let’s talk about sandwiches. I made these sandwiches as a kind of amuse-bouche, just a little historical appetizer to get us all in the mood for the meal to come. These are all recreations of authentic sandwiches sold in diners to provide the cheapest possible meals to patrons.

I even researched the bread. Turns out sliced bread was first sold in 1928, and by 1933 roughly 80% of bread sold in the United States was pre-sliced. So it was definitely a Depression era staple. I thought a rougher texture might be a bit more authentic, so I grabbed the cheapest sliced loaf I could find from the bakery instead of the super soft, mass manufactured, bagged stuff.

It quickly became clear why sandwiches were a Depression staple. It was fast and easy to make a platter full of filling food from very few ingredients. The sandwiches I made were as follows, in order of increasing repulsiveness: Peanut Butter & Bologna, Peanut Butter & Pickle, Peanut Butter & Onion, and Peanut Butter & Mayonnaise. Mayo is largely just gross, and pairing it with peanut butter did not help that one bit. It was nasty, although not quite as bad as I had expected. Peanut Butter & Onion was unappealing, but I could see that it would be tolerable if I was starving. I grew up hearing about Peanut Butter & Pickle sandwiches from my dad, who came from a very poor family and sometimes ate them as a kid. I’d tried them before. They’re not half as bad as they sound. But despite their familiarity, I’ve listed them as the second most tolerable. Why? Because, to my absolute shock, Peanut Butter & Bologna was not just tolerable, it was actually good.

I’ve seen people do weird food challenges a hundred times, so I’ve seen Peanut Butter & Bologna sandwiches tested before. Almost invariably there is a moment of dread as the taster winces, preparing for the appalling flavor that’s sure to come. Next there is a look of confusion, as the expected urge to vomit fails to materialize. Then comes the surprised realization of acceptance, then, amused in spite of themselves, the smiles and laughter of delight. They are not just okay with the flavor of Peanut Butter & Bologna, they are actively enjoying it. I suspected these reactions were something of a performance until I ate my Peanut Butter & Bologna sandwich and went through exactly the same emotions myself. Maybe it was the hearty bread or maybe I got lucky with the ratio, but Peanut Butter & Bologna is legitimately tasty. I didn’t just sample that sandwich, I straight up finished it. But, as I said before, the sandwiches weren’t the focus of the evening. It was time to get on to the main event.

I decided to go hard core with my bake, so I chose the most odd recipes I could find, hoping to capture the feel of what a meal might have been like when times got truly desperate. So my entry was Beef Bone Marrow & Peanut Butter Stuffed Onions With Fried Bread.

I’d never eaten bone marrow before, and I’d certainly never cooked it. Being a fan of Good Eats, I had watched Alton Brown prepare bone marrow in one of the new episodes, and I was excited to try it. Watching and rewatching the episode while taking copious notes, I prepared for what looked like an awesome new culinary adventure.

The bag of marrow bones smelled terrible, but I trusted Alton Brown. I soaked them in saltwater for 24 hours, per Alton Brown’s instructions, which removed most of the blood and much of the unpleasant odor. They still smelled iffy, but not outright foul. I arranged them on a cookie sheet with aluminum foil, per Alton Brown’s instructions, and roasted them, per Alton Brown’s instructions. Using the fat rendered from the marrow, I fried some of my bakery loaf, per Alton Brown’s instructions. I seasoned them lightly, per Alton Brown’s instructions, and served them to my friends. Then, per Alton Brown’s instructions, we scooped up the marrow and spread it on the bread. And we ate it, per Alton Brown’s instructions.

IT WAS FUCKING DISGUSTING. This wasn’t the first time one of Alton Brown’s recipes had let me down. In fact, the more of them I try, the more his recipes seem to be, at best, incomplete, and more often than not thoroughly disappointing. This one was goddamned revolting.

The fat rendered from the marrow gave the fried bread a flavor reminiscent of the smell of ground beef that has gone bad in the back of the fridge. And that, unfortunately, was as good as the marrow experience got. It smelled bad. It looked bad. And it felt bad. On Good Eats the marrow spread nicely across the bread like thick jelly. In real life the marrow rolled unpleasantly under the knife, like partially congealed rubber cement. And it tasted old. And oxidized. And ruined. Absolutely foul. My only hope was that the peanut butter stuffed onion might prove to be my redemption.

NOPE. While not nearly as bad as the marrow, the peanut butter stuffed onion was odd as hell. The stuffing was a mixture of peanut butter and bread crumbs, which meant that the whole thing was basically just a different version of the peanut butter and onion sandwich. But somehow worse in every way.

Only in desperation would someone think this was a good idea. Baking the peanut butter made it dry; the bread crumbs made it desiccated. And the onion added nothing. This was less like a recipe and more like three disparate ingredients that accidentally fell into the same oven. It looks like a dish. It looks like it may even taste alright, which is why I cooked it. But it’s just weird.

This is Dan’s Creamed Beef. I called it shit on a shingle as a joke and Dan was having none of it. “Mine was not shit on a shingle,” he corrected me. “It was creamed beef.” Noted.

Dan also baked the bread – the shingle, if you will – over which his Creamed Beef was served.

I’m going to be honest here, I have never understood why this stuff gets a bad name. I never had creamed chipped beef until I was in high school, and I loved it the instant I tasted it. It’s delicious. Why people complain about eating it is beyond me. I still love it. And I loved Dan’s. I’d never had homemade shit on a shingle creamed chipped beef before, especially on homemade bread, and it was marvelous. Is this really what people ate during the Great Depression? I would have been just fine with that.

Mandy made us a Chocolate Pie. I don’t really understand how this chocolate pie is different than non-Depression Era chocolate pies, except the crust is all wonky. Yeah, that’s a baking term. It’s technical; just one of our little toys.

Mandy, as is her wont, is being super cagey with information, so I can’t be sure what was so Depression about this pie. But I do remember the crust had an unpleasant burned taste. Also, it appears to have been rolled out by someone with no recognition of pleasing shapes, or even a passing familiarity with common geometric symmetry. Was this crust rolled by some monster from beyond Euclidian n-space? Is that why Mandy’s keeping secrets? Is she trying to protect us from the madness of baking with Lovecraftian horrors? Did a hound of Tindalos help make this pie? The world may never know.

Yeah, so the crust was a mess. But the filling was delicious!

Mark made us a Chocolate Depression Cake. No eggs. No dairy. Just chocolate and depression.

These grainy, low-res images are the only photographic evidence we have of Mark’s cake. Why are these pictures so bad? It looks like I was filming his cake from the Grassy Knoll. Seriously, if I hadn’t already told you, you wouldn’t even known this was a cake. That may as well be an ugly couch cushion. It was not attractive.

Nor was it flavorful. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I specifically remember not linking this cake. Normally I am a big fan of Mark’s cooking. And usually I can at least understand the outcomes of our votes, even if I don’t agree with them. But Dan and Mandy both voted for this cake, which made absolutely no sense to me. In fact, it kinda made me mad. It seemed nonsensical enough to have been scripted. Either one of their bakes should have won before this one did. I’m gettin’ all worked up again. Here, read this Depression era menu while I calm myself down. Order yourself a piping hot cup of whatever the hell raisin coffee is. That should go well with Mark’s brown, flavorless flour mash.

I don’t like this outcome. And I don’t agree with it. The food I made was largely inedible, so I don’t mind that I got no votes. I would have strongly debated anyone who had voted for me. But this was the stupidest voting result I’ve witnessed since 2016. I knew the rules going into this thing, and if my fellow bakers want to vote wrong and screw everything up, well, I guess I’ll just have to deal with it. But I don’t have to like it.

Congratulations, Mark, for winning the top spot and being this week’s Star Baker! Join us next time as we once again trade in our aprons for lab coats and visit our super secret culinary testing grounds in Mandy’s Test Kitchen #002!

Until next time, bon appétit!

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