For most East European Jews in the early 20th century, dishes like noodle kugel, pickled herring, and stuffed breast of veal —well remembered by their descendants—were foods for special occasions. Paul Glasser explains that most days they had to make do with plainer fare:
According to the memoirs of Hirsh Abramovich, a Yiddish writer in prewar Vilna, the Jews in Lithuania were probably the poorest segment of the [Russian] Jewish population, particularly in rural areas. . . . Abramovich writes: “Villagers referred to city dwellers as ‘those Vilna noshers’ since they could eat ‘luxuries’ like fish, chicken, cheese, butter, and even bread not only on Shabbos, but even on weekdays.” . . .
If a family didn’t have food during the week, they had to do without; but if they didn’t have food for the Sabbath, other Jews had no choice but to help them out. In Abramovich’s words: “It was common to see Jews suffering from hunger during the week, but not on Shabbos since it was forbidden to allow a Jewish family to be without food on Shabbos.” Even the poorest were provided with at least challah and fish.
Fruit and vegetables weren’t readily available in the winter, so families ate what they had stored up: onions, cucumbers, cabbage, beets, sorrel soup, and, of course, potatoes. Jews and non-Jews alike in Eastern Europe, as well as in other countries (think of Ireland), stayed alive thanks to potatoes. . . . As the famous children’s song tells us: “Sunday we have potatoes, Monday—potatoes, Tuesday—potatoes, Wednesday and Thursday—potatoes; Shabbos, thank goodness, we have potato kugel, Sunday it’s back to potatoes.”
Potatoes were prepared in numerous ways: cooked, stewed, baked; scraped and unscraped (not peeled, it’s a shame to waste the skin!). They were used to make dishes like brioche and pudding and others with names like “Gypsy,” “bombs,” [and] “futile fish” (potatoes with onions and black fish).
Read more on Forward: http://forward.com/culture/yiddish-culture/378007/what-did-poor-jews-in-the-shtetl-eat/