Profiles

She Survived the Great Depression—Then, at 91, Became a YouTube Star

June 22, 2018

Clara Cannucciari became internet famous at 91 years old. She was 66 when video cameras first went on sale and 74 when the World Wide Web was born. She never wanted to be on camera because she didn’t like the way she photographed, so when her grandson, Chris Cannucciari, first asked if he could film her cooking, she resisted.

But they struck a deal: He could film her on the condition that he produce one worthy portrait of her that she could use at her wake. She was, after all, 91 years old. So Clara sat for a portrait and Chris photographed her, and she liked it. “Fine,” she said. “You can film me.”

Photo by Clara Cannuciarri

When he first uploaded those videos of his grandmother, he didn’t expect them to achieve much success. He couldn’t predict that Clara would become an early internet icon or that her recipes would be watched, beloved, and recreated by audiences whose numbers vaulted into the millions. And he never imagined that years after her death, people would continue to pay tribute to his grandmother and her Great Depression cooking.

Shop the Story

“I had wanted to film her for a while," Chris tells me over the phone. "I went to film school and got the idea of oral histories, recording an older member of your family to get some of those stories down." But he found the genre, as it stood, creatively limited. Most oral histories were staid: a person, seated, recounting a story directly to the camera. How could he update the format, and record narratives, in a way that felt engaging? “I thought it would be cool to take something she did so naturally and so well, which was cooking, and mix that up with her stories. She would make these Great Depression meals for me and my brothers and sister, and we loved them.”

The biggest mark of celebrity for her, though, was going to church and having the priest walk up to her and say ‘I saw your show.’ Then she really felt like she was a star.

Together, they created Great Depression Cooking, a YouTube series of cooking videos anchored by Clara, the show’s only host and personality. In each installment, she prepares one dish, moving slowly but precisely through her kitchen, and talks about the recipe, what it means to her, and the memories it conjures—revealing, in some way, a tacit understanding of life during one of America’s bleakest economic chapters.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“In her book, Clara talks about going to the Aragon and Trianon ballrooms in Chicago as a young woman and my mom told me about going to those with my dad. Though our background is German, some of the food was very similar. Some variation of Poorman's Meal was common and I still make something similar frequently. Though I don't use her recipe, Clara is responsible for me baking my own bread. Getting a meal on the table now is so commercialized and almost competitive. Clara reminds me how simple it can, and maybe should, be. ”
— Sally
Comment

“Welcome to my kitchen," she begins each episode. "I’m Clara, I’m 91 years old. Today we are making meals from the Depression.”


“This was during the very early days of YouTube in 2006," Chris says. "Back when there wasn't anything other than people falling down or soccer players kicking balls. There was nothing at the time where you could pitch a series that had no budget or no star. You couldn't pitch that to the Food Network, but you could put it up on YouTube and see what happened.”

Their initial four videos racked up around 30,000 views, which, as Chris describes, “was like getting 3 million today.” Energized by the traffic—mostly from oral history buffs and survivalists, people who took an interest in Clara’s penchant for canned foods—they set out to make more.

At first, Clara didn’t really understand the project. Her grandson showed her the comments and they came off nice enough, but she couldn’t quite grasp the computer-bound video service of internet streaming. “Is this cable?” Chris remembers her asking.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the financial crash of 2008 that Clara’s Great Depression Cooking videos really began to soar. Whether it was the reality of those cash-strapped times or an increased interest in history and its predilection for repetition, Clara’s videos struck a chord with internet users at the onset of the recession. In 2009, for the first time, one of the videos surpassed a million views.

“She started playing to the camera more when she realized this was reaching people,” Chris tells me. The comments section of her videos began to fill with messages of inspiration, aspiration. “She would get fan mail, too, or groups would send her quilts. The biggest mark of celebrity for her, though, was going to church and having the priest walk up to her and say ‘I saw your show.’ Then she really felt like she was a star.”

Though cooking is the obvious central element of Clara’s show, all one needs to do is watch a few episodes for it to become readily apparent that they also serve as a vehicle for her other strength: storytelling. Chris describes his grandma as a raconteur, eager for an audience and constantly improving, revising her stories.

The videos are but a natural evolution of her already existing style, the way she moved through the kitchen. “She would cook then take a break and play cards or just chat,” he tells me. “And so, instead of chatting or playing cards, we would do the interview portion.” Her cooking would stir memories, associations, and with them, a narrativization of history.

In a nostalgic present that places so much value on grandmothers and their stature as matriarchs in the kitchen, Clara’s appeal feels obvious. It’s her angle, her approach to cooking, and her stories that feel distinct. The breadth of online instructional “how to” content tends to lean aspirational—roadmaps to success, faster meals, and beautiful spreads that even you, yes you, can pull together at home. But Clara offered something different, almost antithetical, to this landscape. Hers wasn’t a lifestyle modeled on some performative oh-I-just-threw-this-together ease, but rather one that embraced hardship and a strained ability to make ends meet.

Photo by Clara Cannuciarri

Drawing from an adolescence spent against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the food Clara cooks in her videos displays a frugality rooted in memory, cemented by habit. Her recipes are simple and hover at four or five components; she employs a meager ingredient list not for ease, but because of circumstance.

There’s her recipe video for pasta with peas, in which she simmers potatoes and onions, then adds peas, a meager but filling sauce that she combines with rigatoni. Pasta, she remembers, was something her family relied on like a crutch during the Depression. For a second, with a sly smile, Clara disappears into a memory. She pantomimes an exchange with her mother: “What’s for dinner tonight? Pasta with garlic. What’re we going to eat tonight? Pasta with peas. What’re we going to eat tonight? Pasta with beans.” She laughs and looks back at the camera. “That’s all we did, eat pasta with a vegetable.”

In one episode, as she assembles a pizza, she remembers of the first time her family encountered electricity. “After our lamps, we got gaslight. We thought it was so bright. After the gaslight we finally got electricity, a 20-watt bulb that we also thought was so bright. We went through all those different times.” And somehow, even amidst tales of poverty, she brings to the era a sort of lost nostalgia and unexpected poignancy. “We were more of a family during the Depression. We were always together, sometimes too much.”


Clara Cannucciari was born in Chicago to Sicilian parents. At the turn of the century, her father left the Italian island and the coal mines in which he toiled, and chartered a boat to the New World. For him, like for so many other immigrants at the time, America shone like the freshly oiled gear of a machine. He settled in Chicago and found work building houses. It was amongst the local Italian community—people who spoke similar dialects, preferred red wine like he did, and dreamt with longing of the home country—that he eventually met his wife and started a family.

In 1929, Clara was 14. The holes in her shoes and clothes began to widen, and with them a feeling of humiliation. “I had to quit high school because I couldn’t afford socks,” she says in the Poorman’s Meal episode. “I couldn’t afford anything to wear.” Her parents hadn’t learned much English, and as the Great Depression settled its weight onto the shoulders of America, she went to work.

Photo by Clara Cannuciarri

“She was a scrapper for sure,” Chris says. So many of the skills that he admired in his grandmother—resourcefulness, sardonic wit, an appreciation for family—were honed during these difficult years. In family lore, Clara was remembered as a tomboy who was part of an early wave of women who, spurred by economic duress, entered factories, spaces they were previously denied access. Her first job was on the line at the Twinkie factory, “Rosie the Riveter style,” as Chris puts it.

Chris is now a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn. He credits his grandmother, and their work on the series, with his early career shift away from more narrative work.

“It was basically just her and me, he said. “That's about it. There wasn’t not much to it. We had CBS News come up and do a profile on her. And there were like four people, and she was like, ‘I can’t stand all these people in my kitchen.’” The palpable intimacy in the videos wasn’t just part of the charm, but necessary for its function. “The dynamic wouldn't have worked in a studio setting.”

Along the way, the project also became an exercise in family archiving. So many of the meals he grew up eating at his grandmother’s house became immortalized online, visual testaments to a life well fed. And when Clara passed at the age of 98, the videos took on a lasting importance.

“A lot of these meals are what I like to call endangered meals,” Chris says. “They're gonna die off with older generations if we don't preserve them. There were some oddball things that we put out, like this Sicilian Christmas cookie that's really hard to make and you can't find it anywhere. So I thought it’d be funny to do it, and sure enough every Christmas people thank us for the recipe. Others don't have that ability to film their family members, but they still want access to those recipes. I think that’s because we identify food with our family. There’s a very close connection there.”

50 Comments

Martine August 17, 2018
I absolutely loved this piece. Thank you for cherishing the memories and recipes. I'm not Sicilian/Italian and I never got to know my grandmothers but through these videos I feel the warm connection. Thank you.
 
Michelle August 15, 2018
Thank you for honoring this dignified, humble, beautiful woman with your article about her. I found her by chance, watched many of the cooking videos, and was fondly reminded of my own time with my grandmother in her kitchen, teaching me to cook rice and spaghetti and fricassee, describing her dresses made of flour sacks and the mud pies she made so joyfully. It was a gift.
 
Arizona C. July 14, 2018
Absolutely charming.
 
Diane T. July 13, 2018
My family thought my grandmothers recipes were list till a few were found stuck in a drawer. I spent months piecing the few notes she actually wrote into a recipe. I tested then created a cookbook for my family. These videos like my book are touchstones to the past. Your grandmother was so wonderful! She took me back to my days with mine.
 
franny July 11, 2018
This is my first time watching Ms. Clara. Brought tears to my eyes. My mother is 97, daughter of Italian immigrants. I just left her after helping with dinner (Italian sausage, greens with pasta and salad. We still eat and love pasta e fagioli! Can't wait to see more of Clara. Thank you!
 
Stella July 10, 2018
Awww my two sons (now 16 & 12) and I watched Ms. Clara religiously & still talk about her to this day.<br />Chris you did such a wonderful job... We loved her & never even met her.<br />We were just torn to pieces when she passed.<br />I can only imagine how hard it must've been to film that last episode ... & uh! 😭 Her empty chair 😭 just broke me. 😢 We all cried that day... She was a beautiful lady inside and out with all her wisdom and wit.<br />Thank you Valerio Farris for writing this amazing story and thank you Chris for sharing your grandmother with the world!<br />We love ya like we know you and wish you all the best.<br />In gratitude,<br />Stella, Alex & Aidan 💓
 
LuAnne W. July 9, 2018
I love this beautiful story. I wish I had this from my great-grandmother. Thank you so much. What a gift.
 
susan July 9, 2018
Omigod what a sweet grandmother. I love that you have these youtube clips to remember her by. I would love to have a grandmother like her and just sit in the kitchen and hang out with her while she cooked. You're very lucky. She has a great sense of humor by the way. : )<br />
 
Bella P. July 9, 2018
I’m so glad you posted this. I had never heard of her before. Thank you!
 
MOMMAK75 July 9, 2018
What a beautiful story. I wish I could have done the same with my Uruguayan abuela. Always making deliciousness out of the simplest ingredients.
 
Mish V. July 9, 2018
My maternal grandparents came to Australia with young children after WWII and they could only bring one chest with them, so her recipe book was handwritten in her own shorthand so she could fit as many recipes as possible in it. Such a shame that I didn't learn her personal shorthand before she passed and so her book remains but it's contents have been lost in translation. Very happy to see that Chris has kept his grandmother and her food alive :)
 
MOMMAK75 July 9, 2018
I bet if you really took a stab at it, you'd find common threads in all the recipes and be able to "translate" it!!
 
Cgraeff July 8, 2018
Thank you for the article. What a great story! <br /><br />Recently while cullng through recipes, I looked for the umpteenth time at family recipes I use. But, for the first time, I realized the importance to my that these recipes were written down by my long gone grandmothers, father and mother in their own handwriting. This makes them extra special and I urge you all to preserve these family heirlooms. The documentation, whether written or recorded, is precious.
 
Kayevee July 8, 2018
What a a good story! I was so happy to be introduced to Clara's YouTube channel and her fried mushroom dish was an inspiration for my dinner tonight. <br />So glad her grandson filmed this amazing lady.
 
Annetta F. July 8, 2018
I agree it is frustrating to have to keep scrolling down to read and then the darned thing scrolls up again. Can't this be fixed?
 
Sherry E. July 8, 2018
such a heartfelt memento to his grandma- oh she was a wonder to be sure-
 
Mary July 8, 2018
More than wonderful, thank you
 
FatAng July 8, 2018
The saddest day of my life was the day my Dad died. The second saddest day? When I realized he took all his incredible recipes to his grave. He never wrote them down.
 
Karen L. July 8, 2018
What a treasure! She is darling. I love honoring our elders!
 
Mike R. July 8, 2018
What a fabulous story ... and video oral histories. <br /><br />Last year a friend and an Italian neighbor both gave me Cuccidati recipes which are very similar to Clara's. It's wonderful to see the techniques in action.<br /><br />Did she, perhaps, have a recipe for Brutti ma Buoni, a hazelnut meringue cookie that translates to "Ugly but Good". A friend gave me a Sicilian version of this cookie that is very different from -- and I think, better than -- the classic original developed in northern Italy (Gavirate, north of Milan).
 
Mike R. July 8, 2018
I'd love to know more about the history of the Sicilian version of Brutti ma Buoni.
 
Maria July 8, 2018
These videos are a treasure! My Italian mom is pushing 80 with the beginning of dementia and she loves to talk about when she was younger. I immediately sent this link to her because she will certainly appreciate Clara’s commentary. Thank you for sharing this lovely lady!