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

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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.

“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.”

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.

“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.

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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.”

Tags: Food History, Interviews