Sunday, May 24, 2009


The college stories I've been doing are starting to get to me. Every time I write one and think I'm using up all I can remember and then some, more stuff comes tumbling out of the closets of my brain. Memories that had lain there harmlessly for years come back to haunt me.

I'll tell you one that surprised me when I remembered it.

Actually, first I need to set this up. One of my favorite foods is a dish made with crumbled chopped meat, green pepper, and tomato sauce, served over a small pasta like shells or elbows. Pasta Bolognese, we sophisticates would call it. I not only like to eat it, but it's one of very few things I can cook without thinking much about it, I've been making it for so long.

Now I could exaggerate and say I've eaten this dish forever but that's not true. There is no way we had this in my Irish American house, with the meat and potatoes and the decorative peas and corn (decorative as far as we kids were concerned). My mom would not have made this pasta thing. It comes from somewhere else.

What surprised me? I suddenly remembered where I got this dish from. College. The girl that "Mary" is based on in the stories used to cook this for the two of us. It was cheap, reasonably nutritious, and filling. I had totally forgotten about that.

But now of course I'm going to think about it. This is what I get for my freakin' need to write stories. I've got a mental image of a tiny white apartment kitchen and... oh, enough, I really don't want this in my head. If only I'd left well enough alone.

Let's focus on the weird name she had for it. Slumgullion. Ever hear of it? It probably depends on where you're from. Frustratingly the Dictionary of American Regional English has been published only up to words starting with "sk"! But a tour of the web suggests that usage is concentrated around Ohio and Indiana as I would have guessed.

The exact ingredients vary, but it usually involves a mixture of beef, tomato paste or sauce or soup, onions or green pepper or corn, poured over a base of "macaroni" (not your fancy "pasta"!) or sometimes rice or potato. In origin it was probably a stew of leftovers.

The oldest reference is Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872, but there it is not a stew at all but a cheap liquor. (What else would it be? It's Mark Twain, chewing a cigar and swigging ol' rotgut.)

The derivation of the name appears to be from "slime" and the obsolete word "gallion" which means mud or even cesspool. Mmm, tasty! See this.

Does thinking about a slimy cesspool make you hungry? Hey, let's make some! We're going to feed three people today: me, my wife, and my daughter home from college.


Half pound to full pound of chopped meat. I think it's faithful to the origins of this dish to just go to the store and see what size packages they happen to have. I'd tend to go for the smaller end of this range though, unless you're all really hungry. If you can splurge on 90% lean that will save you pouring out the fat, and since we're putting this into sauce we don't need to worry about it being dry. Today I found a package of 0.53 pound of ground chuck.

A jar or can of some kind of tomato product.
I don't want to be telling you what to do. What I've been reading tells me that slumgullion can be very soupy, but at home we like it the opposite way, and the version I first had was somewhere in the middle. I would use a small can of plain tomato sauce or a small jar of prepared pasta sauce. Today I've got a 14 ounce jar of Classico tomato and basil sauce.

Some kind of pasta.
The standard for slumgullion is elbow macaroni, the same stuff you'd make mac and cheese with (something I just can't stand to eat). I'm breaking with tradition here and using spaghetti. This Dreamfields brand has more fiber and less digestible carbs than most, and it's still a nice semolina pasta, not some mysterious alternative.

One green pepper.
You see how simple this dish is, so it's nice to add something else. Many people use onion. A little bit of chopped celery is pretty good too, if you have some celery around. I wouldn't buy it just for this. People on the web mention corn, which strikes me as a weird ingredient for this dish, except that they probably had plenty of it around out there in mid America. Some people who grew up eating slumgullion talk about how much they hate it now. Anyway what we have here is a green pepper, and I like it.

The other carb. It fills you up and you can mush it around in the meat and sauce to get another texture going. We have a nice bastone from locally famous Calandra's bakery, with a nice tough crust on it. I usually get a semolina bread but the store didn't have any left today. Am I getting too fancy? Look, it's not made organically in Vermont or anything.

Red wine.
This is not slumgullion tradition, but I can't eat pasta without it. We have here a Primitivo from Puglia in southern Italy, a close relative of Zinfandel, and it's got "full body and unique mineral bouquet with undertones of cherries and plums". Sometimes I have a Sicilian red, or an Australian Shiraz or west coast Syrah (same grape). It should be something dry and full bodied anyway.

You need a pot for the pasta and a pan for the meat and other stuff. I don't know what these cooking containers are called technically, but look at them, below. You know you have things like them.
(After taking the photo below I remembered the right side burner is the larger one, and moved the pot and pan.)


Put water in the pot, meat in the pan, and get them going on high. Keep pushing at the meat with an implement to break it up so it gets into crumbly bits. You need to get the meat brown all through.

While this is happening, cut the pepper. Come on, be good, that's not a euphemism. Cut little pieces off the green pepper.

Also, open the container of tomato whatever, and start to break off pieces of bread, dip them in the sauce, and eat them. Cook's privilege. You might also open the wine and pour a glass, so you can check whether it's any good.

At length you will discover that the water is boiling and the meat has become brown, or black. We move seamlessly into phase deux.

Put pasta into the water, and see how long they say it needs to cook on the side of the box. Set the timer. This is a break from tradition, since slumgullion macaroni is probably just cooked until it turns to mush. But we don't have to do that if we don't want to. The style favored by Cleveland shortstop Al Dente (lifetime .220) is what we want.

Using a timer is a recent break from my tradition, which was to scoop out a pastum (that's singular for pasta, right?) every so often, put it in my mouth and burn my tongue, and chew to see how it's going. I am not too set in my ways to change.

Now turn to the meat pan. If you can see fat floating around, I'd pause here and scoop out as much of that fat as you can. We used 90% lean and we don't need to. Ha ha. We can turn off the burner for a few minutes, because we're using a small jar of medium thick sauce. If you are using a larger container of something thinner, leave the burner on and dump it in now, and let some of the water in it boil away.

At some point when the force moves us, we put the burner back on and dump the sauce and peppers in there. We only need to get the sauce hot, and we like to keep the peppers snappy. Probably it's when the pasta timer says there'
s four or five minutes left.

Try not to let that last step slide till the pasta timer dings, because then you have to face the quandary about whether to let the pasta sit in the water, or to drain it and let it sit without the water. It gets a little weird either way. It's good if no one is in the kitchen to see either of those things happen, like when you drop something on the floor, wipe the cat hair off, and toss it back in the pan where the bacteri
a will be killed by the heat (but I know you wouldn't do that).

If all is well, when the timer goes off, the house does not explode, but rather the pasta is perfectly done and so is the pan with the meat, sauce, and pepper. Turn them off, drain the pasta, and yell at the other two people you're cooking for, to come and get it before you toss it to the hogs.

I forgot, but before now you should have set out plates, forks, and glasses on the table, and brought the bread and wine out there if you've left any for them. Provide soft drinks and grated cheese for them that likes it, and some kind of napkins. We like these paper napkins on a roll.


There. Now you can sit and enjoy a good American meal and be patriotic for just the once.

Next time: Beach Train.



  2. My mom used to make this for our family of eight. She's from upstate New York, but maybe she started making it when we lived in Pittsburgh. Anyway, she used peas. I never liked it, but I got curious after hearing the name on old Gunsmoke episodes. I've gotta get Mom's recipe!

  3. My mom used to make it with canned corn no onions or pepper.
    Also Irish background. But raised in Washington state hmmm We called it goulash. Funny how things ate same and different. But mostly the same

  4. We eat this over rice or mashed potatoes, and include kidney beans.

  5. I'm 62 and a recall as a child my grandmother making a dish called slumgullion which the word made me turn up my nose till I ate it.
    It was a layered casserole dish of sliced potatoes and green bell peppers with a cheddar type of cheese and maybe sour cream and lots of paprika.
    I think it's a Hungarian dish.
    It was good and I wish I could remember how exactly it was made.