Coleslaw with Buttermilk Dressing

A delightful Depression-era coleslaw moves into the 21st Century with just a few slight modifications!

I got sidetracked this summer with a project from 85 years ago, and boy was it fun.

WPA project on today’s table

My husband and I are members of the Vermont Historical Society and we attended a dinner this spring that was entitled “Vermont Eats” an exploration of recipes that were compiled by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The project sought to employ writers and photographers throughout the country by compiling information on what America was eating at the time, recipes in common use during the 1930s and into the early 1940s. Although they never published a finished work, there are archives of massive amounts of material that was compiled for the project, state by state.

An upscale presentation

The VHS presented a meal of some of the recipes compiled at the time for Vermont that included New England fish chowder, Saturday night baked beans, New England boiled dinner, chicken pot pie, and Vermont apple tart with Cheddar cheese (the only way a true New Englander would eat apple pie). The recipes were quite familiar to most of us present who were from New England, and even to a few who weren’t, and were served up in fine dining fashion in a hotel ballroom, fine china, candlelight, musical entertainment.

The talk was given by the society’s executive director Steve Perkins, and we knew he would be guest speaker at our local pilgrimage event earlier this month at the Rockingham Meeting House, so this would be a sneak preview of his talk. We loved the event, and it helped us plan what we would offer for samples at our pilgrimage.

Traditional recipes

We decided on traditional baked beans, spiced currants (which I also made, recipe here), the buttermilk coleslaw, Indian pudding, and strawberry or peach shortcake. We also served haymakers’ switchel, which we call the original energy drink, popular here since Colonial times.

Casual service

Our event was casual, outside, under a tent, not fine dining, but great sharing. I made a large triple batch of the coleslaw for the event. The recipe, at the end of this post, was simple and included a delicious buttermilk dressing, which I will use again and again with just a few minor changes.

While everyone liked the dish, there were a couple of comments about the processed cheese. First off, it was odd to have cheese of any sort in a coleslaw, and I’m sure it was both an attempt to add protein of sorts and also an opportunity to use a relatively new cheese-like product. But in this instance, it added too soft a texture to the slaw. It was just a bit strange.

A few changes

When I thought about remaking this, I knew I would need to swap out the cheese and I ended up using a one-year Cheddar, not too sharp, but firm enough to stand up to the salad.

I really couldn’t find much fault with the dressing because it tasted so good, but I bumped up the cayenne a bit, reduced the salt from 2 teaspoons to a half, and used honey instead of brown sugar. I will most definitely make this again, although I used a lot less than the recipe called for and it was just right.

Add some color

I added a little yellow carrot for color interest, and some goji berries for texture and a little nutritional pop. My last swap was a small sweet red pepper for the topping rather than the green peppers in the original recipe. I found the peppers at the farm stand that morning and couldn’t resist.


Coleslaw with Buttermilk Dressing (my way)

For the dressing:

1 cup buttermilk

3 tbsp. cider vinegar

2 tsp. Dijon mustard

tbsp. native honey

1/2 tsp. salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

For the salad:

5 cups shredded cabbage

1/2 small carrot, shredded

1/3 cup goji berries

4 ounces Vermont Cheddar cheese

1 sweet red pepper cut in rings

Shred the cabbage and place it in a colander. Massage in 1 tbsp. coarse salt. Let this set for at least a half hour to extract some of the extra liquid in the cabbage.

The dressing is creamy, a little tart and a little sweet, with just a touch of heat.

While this is resting,
make the dressing. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you like.

Shred the carrot and cut the cheese into roughly 1/4-inch cubes. Add these and the goji berries to a large mixing bowl.

Rinse the cabbage well, squeezing it out as you do so, then dry on a tea towel. Once thoroughly dry, add it to the bowl, and mix everything up well.

Add the dressing a little at a time until it is how you like it. I still had about a third of a cup of dressing left over, but you might like to use it all. Salt and pepper again, to your own taste.

Slice the thin pepper into rings and garnish the top.

Refrigerate for a couple of hours for the best flavor

The original recipe from the WPA project:

THE ORIGINAL DEPRESSION-ERA RECIPE, mostly. For the event, I made a double batch of the salad. I used both green and purple cabbage, and I couldn’t help myself by adding both red and green peppers, not exactly what the recipe called for. A frugal cook in Vermont during the Depression would have used what was on hand, and that is what I had! I used the full amount of dressing, which is why I decided to cut that back a little in the redux.

Coleslaw with Buttermilk Dressing

“Finely shred the cabbage to make five cups. Toss this in a serving bowl with a good half cupful of chopped cheeses (American or “store” as it is sometimes called). Then having mixed 3 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, 2 teaspoons each of mustard, salt, and brown sugar, with a grain or two of cayenne and a full cup of buttermilk, pour it over the cabbage and cheese. Toss more and garnish the whole with rings of green peppers.”

This recipe was originally submitted to the WPA project by writer Cora A. Moore who researched the recipes.

Not a usual ingredient in my kitchen, but this refrigerator American “store cheese” was a Depression-era and beyond staple in many homes. The salt level in this cheese is beyond sane.

© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen.

The New Vintage Kitchen does not accept ads or payment for mention of products.

12 Comments Add yours

  1. simplywendi says:

    looks amazing! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! It really was quite good.

      1. simplywendi says:

        thank you for posting it!

  2. nhalicia says:

    This salad looks so beautiful! Your photographs make me hungry!

    1. What a kind thing to say! Color is so important in our meals, even if all we can do is add some parsley to the top of a bland-colored dish!

  3. Ally Bean says:

    I like coleslaw and I like cheese, but nary the two shall mix. That being said, the dressing for this slaw sounds and looks delicious to me. Thanks for the recipe.

    1. I know, it sounds really wrong, and I had never seen it before. While the addition of the cheese is different, it doesn’t really add that much to the salad, so leaving it out is probably what most folks would do. The dressing is really good indeed! Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Chocoviv says:

    Refreshing salad!

    1. Thank you! It is really nice, as long as you are a little stingy with the dressing!

      1. Chocoviv says:


  5. Awesome, I sometimes use some homemade hung curd in my slaw!

    1. I bet that has a lovely tang!

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