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Italian Grandma Survives Depression, Strikes Gold


Depression-era cooking means recession-era profits.

If the boom times have their own celebrities, then so do the busts.

Along with this recession comes Clara Cannucciari, a 93-year-old grandmother and star of Great Depression Cooking, a web series on which she shares recipes and describes, with great charm and humor, how she and her family survived -- gained weight, even -- during the Great Depression.

Clara's mini empire includes a website, a widely followed YouTube (GOOG) show, a DVD, and a Facebook page with more than 2,000 friends. St. Martin's Press plans to publish her cookbook this October, 80 years after the start of the Great Depression.

Behind it all is an entrepreneurial grandson, Chris Cannucciari, 30. The Brooklyn-based director and cinematographer realized his grandmother's stories were especially relevant to people struggling in today's squeezed economic times.

Two years ago Chris first started taping and posting videos of his grandmother preparing the basic Depression-era fare she'd eat as a girl growing up in Chicago. To cook Depression-style, start with a sack of potatoes, a sack of flour, some onions, eggs, tomato sauce, hot dogs, and, occasionally, an affordable cut of meat.

Among the 7 episodes Chris has posted show Clara preparing pasta with peas, egg drop soup and panecotta, which is cooked bread (stale bread revived with a little olive oil, salt and boiling water).

At first, the videos didn't attract much attention. But when the economy worsened, interest in the shows took off. "Now when the New York Times does a piece on recessions or depressions, views spike high," said Chris.

In fact, Clara's lifelong frugality has shaped how he and his wife, photographer Abby Cope, budget their lives and plan for the future. We talked to Chris about his grandmother's influence.

Q: Why did you decide to create the Great Depression Cooking showcase with your grandmother?

A: She's always been such a character. I thought she'd be great. When she was 91, I said I have to videotape you for this family history. You keep saying this is your last year, so let me capture you. My grandmother is a great Italian cook, but I thought her recipes from the Great Depression would be most unique to shoot.

Q: Growing up, did your grandmother talk about the Depression a lot?

A: She is a great storyteller and she has talked her whole life about the Depression. They were her formative years. At first I didn't pay much attention. When you are really young, you don't care. Now that I am older, I see that she is living history.

Q: What did you learn from Clara about living through a depression and handling money?

A: It's kind of funny, my grandfather didn't have a well-paying job, but they used to go back and forth to Italy all the time. Frugality allowed them to do that. Things like, not preparing portions bigger than you can eat that day, because they spoil. Another one is saving and reusing everything, like bags.

My wife and I have become a little more frugal, not by necessity, but by her example. Another thing we do is really think before buying new things. A lot of the items in my grandmother's kitchen have never been replaced. They are 80 years old. She doesn't see the point in replacing something that still works. But people today see a new coffee maker and think they need it. We are living in a disposable society.

Were your parents frugal?

A: My father, Carl, was the only child and they spoiled him. He is not of that mind at all. I am a child of the '80s. I was brought up in a household where everything was disposable. Frugality didn't click in for me until the last few years.

Q: How did your life change when that happened?

A: I am a filmmaker. I am employed. I'm unemployed. It's recession or boom, again and again for me. I have to keep a level head. I am conscious of what I eat. I eat in more than eating out. I have an old-fashioned stove-top espresso pot. My wife and I got 3 coffeemakers for our wedding and we prefer to not plug one in. We like the stove-top method.

Q: What's your favorite meal from Great Depression Cooking?

A: It's the Poorman's meal -- potatoes and hot dogs. Lots of Clara's meals are $0.50 a serving. They contain a lot of carbs, so you have to be active.

Q: In what other ways has your grandmother influenced your life?

A: Clara taught me about the value of money and it's not as important as the quality of time you spend with the people you love. What I learned from her is you have more control of your life when you have less. If you have a lot of possessions, your mind is all over the place.
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