Ancestral Dish: Sludge? Stew? Slumgullion!

An update, 28 November 2013: Slumgullion has almost as many devotees as Anything f’Thanksgiving! And so I give thanks today to all who have posted comments below about their family memories of this ultimate clean-the-refrigerator-out dish. The variations continue to intrigue me. I cannot say why my family’s Slumgullion recipe is the way it is, but on the other hand, maybe that’s what makes it Slumgullion.

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Yes, this workaday classic was going to be October’s Dish of the Month, but October ran away with us. Now here we are in November, when we’re all supposed to be arguing about the best way to roast the turkey.

Well, we can’t have Thanksgiving every day, my dears. On the other hand we could have slumgullion every day, if we dared.

What is slumgullion? If you’re Irish-American and you grew up in the pre-convenience food era, you probably already know.

Call it an everyday supper, if you’re feeling nice. (Which would be more than the Oxford English Dictionary can manage, but more on that later.)

My mother served slumgullion semi-regularly. There it would be in the skillet, a mess of ground beef, macaroni, and tomatoes. It couldn’t aspire to our holy trinity of beef goulash, spaghetti/meatballs and roast chicken. But it was one of those old dependables that my mom reached for (I think) on days when inspiration ran low.

Slumgullion is really just about browning an onion in oil in a skillet, adding a pound of ground beef and browning that with salt and pepper, then draining off the extra fat. Throw in a big can of tomatoes and their juice, plus water and elbow macaroni, and simmer it, covered, until the pasta cooks.

That’s all. It was Hamburger Helper before there was Hamburger Helper.

Kids, don’t try slumgullion at home.

I thought everybody had slumgullion. But then my Brownie troop took a field trip to the local gas utility’s office, which had a demo kitchen and gave cooking classes. (Really!)

The test-kitchen lady demonstrated “Skillet Beef and Macaroni.” I knew it was plain old slumgullion, and I told her so.

“Really, dear?” she said, wrinkling her brow. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

To this day, I’m convinced that the test-kitchen lady was a slumgullion girl who wanted to forget where she came from.

Where did slumgullion itself come from? Well, here goes. But hark, there be nastiness ahead.

The OED says the term originally had two meanings: First: “Any cheap, nasty, washy beverage.” Second: A term for various forms of sludge.

At one point, “slumgullion” denoted fish offal of any kind. It also has meant “the watery refuse, mixed with blood and oil, which drains from blubber.” (See? Nasty.)

Later, “slumgullion” was the name for the muddy deposits at a mining sluice. And finally, it came to mean “a kind of watery hash or stew,” which, under the circumstances, is a bit of a relief.

Slumgullion doesn’t get respect, and really doesn’t earn it. Try looking it up on the recipe collection sites. It has no standards, and codifying it in a recipe feels beside the point. I’m sure some folks out there can’t stand the way my mom made it, but that’s OK; I cannot believe what other people put into their slumgullion.

Corn. Celery. Green peppers. Red peppers. Spinach. Parmesan cheese. Cold spaghetti. Ground-up leftover meats of every kind.

In fact, slumgullion seems to have been a leftover dump for many families, which probably accounts for its awful name.

Still, I like to think of slumgullion every now and then, even if I never make it. We live in an age where cooking and menu planning can be so terribly status-conscious. It is hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for something as completely unpretentious as slumgullion, the stew named after sludge.

Mmmmmmmm.

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23 Comments on “Ancestral Dish: Sludge? Stew? Slumgullion!”

  1. Keith Kellersohn says:

    Check out this use of the word Slumgollian from 1899. My Great Grandfather was on this ship, and my mother had never heard of the word until my Dad used it – which we are suspecting he got from his Grandfather. We never had a “slumgollian” recipe in the house, Slumgollian seemed to be our own family slang term for leftover casseroles and any sloppy, stewy, but “questionably edible” dish.

    http://www.spanamwar.com/cityofpara.htm

  2. rileahRileah says:

    Maybe y’all can help me…. My father taught me a dish made with a can of pork & beans, a can of kernel corn (drained) and sliced hotdogs. We made it amount but as a kid I loved it so made it often, I swear my Father called it Slumgullion, but then again, I swear there is another name. Any ideas??

  3. I make mine with chunks of potatoes instead of the elbow macarroni as I have celiacs disease. We ate this everytime we went camping when we were kids.

  4. S McConnell says:

    Slumgullion is made with ground beef and stewed with diced potatoes, tomatoes and onions with a couple cans of ‘redskin’ kidney beans…yes, add some salt, pepper and a little water for broth…now that’s a meal that I call ‘comfort food’.

  5. […] Ancestral Dish? Sludge? Stew? Slumgullion? – The Ancestral Archaeologist […]

  6. My friend, (from a large Irish family in Philadelphia), and I, (from the Midwest, of Norwegian/German descent), were watching a little-known ‘Christmas’ movie yesterday, and you could say that one of the ‘stars of the show’ was a pot of Slumgullion. This immediately sparked a discussion on the subject; a dish I grew up with and of which my friend had never heard. A google search landed me here, and I think your site is a perfect reintroduction for anyone who has ever had the dish, regardless of what they heard it called. (Turns out, my friend’s mother did make it, and it was referred to as Goop.)
    FYI, the movie is from the 1940’s and is titled “It happened on 5th Avenue.” The plot centers around a group of squatters in a millionaire’s mansion in New York City at Christmastime. Without being a spoiler, I’ll just say that two of the main characters, who were married, but have long been separated, are brought back together when he walks into the home and smells Slumgullion cooking. He waxes eloquently about the dish, saying that his long-lost wife made the best Slumgullion in the county. Unbeknownst to him, it is she who is cooking the dish in the kitchen. It’s a fun movie, worth the watch… especially for Slumgullion fans ☺ Yes, Virginia, there really is a Slumgullion.

    Connie

  7. Maggie says:

    We grew up with my mom making a dish she always called “Slumgullion”– never heard another soul say that word! I’ve looked online now and then for it, and always find tomatoes as part of the concoction…not ours…The only ingredients I recall are browned and crumbled ground beef, sliced potatoes and corn– all in one pan on top of the stove…Perhaps she’d grown up with tomatoes, but, since my sister NEVER ate tomatoes, perhaps she kept them out of her recipe– or, she just never had them when eating Slumgullion as a kid either– hard to know. Irish background, from Dublin and Cork…Salt and peppered while cooking…perhaps onions too– I always add onions when I fix it, but I don’t recall it back then…Yum for sure!

  8. Mia Bryant says:

    My mother made Slumgullion a lot while I was growing up. And when we said the name to people their response was usually “Slum what?” So I referred to it as Goulash to people outside the family. But when I made it this week my husband decided to research the name. All these years I thought my mother’s family made up the strange name. To find out it is an authentic Irish dish that goes way back gave me a renewed pride. I will always call it Slumgullion. We make ours in a roaster in the oven. I layer it with handfuls of ground beef and sliced celery, onions, carrots, potatoes and thin wedges of cabbage cover the top, sprinkle well with salt and pepper. Then pour a can of tomato sauce over the top. Let it bake for at least an hour and 1/2 at 350 and when it’s done it has made a wonderful hearty stew. All that is needed is a bread to accompany it.

  9. Alice says:

    One of my brothers forwarded this article to me. Another brother was a NYC firfighter and brought this recipe home from the firehouse in the early 1960s. It became an instant family favorite that I make for my grandkids these days. The only difference is that I brown the beef in bacon fat and I pre-cook the elbow macroni … no need to add water to the mixture. Note: I usually make hugh portions and freeze some in 2-cup individual containers.

  10. Will says:

    Hi! This was always called American Chop Suey in Boston

  11. Richard T. says:

    Coming from a town of mostly Irish, and many a relatives with names like Doyle, Dorn, and O’Brian, our Mother (and God Rest Her Soul) made it, Ground Beef and Onion, Tomatoes, but no Macaroni, no it had to be sliced Potatoes. The 3 would be layered into an Pot/Pan starting with some of the Beef on the bottom. Then layers of Potato, Beef and Onion topped with Tomatoe, then Repeat, And repeat until the Pot is pretty much full, Then, top this with Crushed Corn Flakes (for a Crispy topping). One further note, if you use all of the tomatoe liquid it may end up more runny than desired. However, this whole concoction would go into the Oven and bake. If only I knew the time and temp. but what’s a ‘Guy’ to do?
    Cooking never entered my life until after college, by then Fast Food was the rage and now, I long for the Old Traditional Dishes my Mother use to make.
    If only I’d paid more attention to what was going on in the kitchen…

    Whether this is True Slumgullion I do not know, but one name that does fit entirely is
    ‘Delicious’! Dad and a couple of the brothers covered it on their plates with ketchup.
    This to me served only to mask the true flavor. But that’s what personal taste is all about.
    They covered many of their foods in ketchup. So why not just drink the stuff on the side?
    *I should add that the Tomatoes were (canned stewed) and then sliced into smaller size.
    And the reason for the beef on the bottom is so that some of the oil/grease would stop it all from sticking to the pan. And being on of the chief dish washers as a kid, I appreciated that little fact!

  12. William Randall says:

    I am a 73 year old Okie and my mother cooked this dish pretty much the way you described it. It was easy, cheap and good. I am not sure where she came up with the recipe as she was from a farm family of mixed descent including Cherokee. The only thing I am sure of, it was not a traditional Cherokee dish.

  13. Alma Relkie says:

    I love all these names- I’m so impressed that I’ve been making this dish for +50 years (have yet to buy one of those horrible things called “hamburger helper”) My husband, who is of East European descent calls this creation “Shemoya” (have no idea how to spell it!) – I know it as Slumgullion, but my version has no tomatoes or macaroni – that’s another dish entirely!. I make it with ground beef, chopped onions & garlic and thicken the whole mess with some kind of sauce – maybe its cream of mushroom soup, or maybe its cornstarch thickened potato water jazzed up with beef stock flavoring. Usually we have this served over mashed potatoes, but it works with rice or pasta too. It is my favorite way to cook ground beef …………..

  14. juanita says:

    I grew up on slumgullion. But it was handed down from my Bohemian Great Grandmother. My mothers family was Irish and they never had it. Ours was made very similar to yours and I still make it today. It is a great staple in a hurry. Other than my family I have never heard it called slumgullion. Most people I know call it Goulash . So imagine my surprise when after being married 30 years a Hungarian friend of ours invited us to their camp for a dish of Slumgullion. And it was made just the way I had grown up with. And now I find your website and many others with recipes for it. I agree some of the additions don’t tempt me but I still like the basic form of it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Cindy Macsuibhne says:

      Juanita my family was of Czech origin and we lived in a Slovenia area of Cleveland, Ohio and my grandma born in 1919 always called it slumguillion..my husband was Irish and never heard of it..later in life I heard it called Marcaroni Creole and after we moved to southeastern Ohio they served it at school and my kids called it Johnny Marzetti perhaps it’s suggested because of the Ohio based Marzetti Company. I always related to a Bohemian origin

  15. CM says:

    I think depending on where you grew up, it’s called something else. I never grew up with this dish, but when I met my husband, his family called it Dog Food.

  16. My grandmother (O’Brien) called it “Chalmayne” and made it similarly (it had to be Creamettes, but cooked separately). My mom pronounced it “CHALL-min” which always sounded like a mispronunciation of “Chow mein.” I never found that name anywhere else. My wife’s mother made it your way, but called it SM&B. We still make it a couple times a month. I thought it would be funny to sell “Slumgullion Helper” and the box would be empty and you’d have to add everything yourself and follow the directions on the back.

  17. westchesterdead says:

    Brilliant post about a dish I haven’t thought about in years. Sludge. Nice.


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