Ancestral Dish: Sludge? Stew? Slumgullion!Posted: November 19, 2009
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.
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.