Not so much should I eat it but rather does anyone else eat it?
October 3, 2014 1:29 PM   Subscribe

There is a dish that my family grew up eating that I still make today (as do my siblings) that none of us have ever seen served anywhere else by anyone else, or heard speak of anywhere else in the world ever.

It made a regular appearance on the dinner table, but if I recall correctly, the neighbors weren't quite sure what to make of it either. I remember my mother correcting a neighbor lady who attempted to call it "chili" with the admonishment that there are no chili spices in it whatsoever.

We called it goulash (I suspect my mother dubbed it this for lack of a better name), but no recipe I've ever googled for goulash had this specific blend of flavors, not even close. I've also googled different combinations of the ingredients, and nothing comes up. It's not a regional dish AFAIK (Western NY). It may have been a recipe in Ladies Home Journal, or McCalls, or some magazine of that ilk, but then I would think that someone else somewhere would've heard of it.

I love it and eat it frequently as cold weather comfort food, but it's so potentially strange that I would never consider serving it to others in case it's one of those weird childhood fond memories food thats inedible to others sort of thing ...

The dish is pretty basic and easy to throw together, and is made of ground beef, canned peeled tomatoes, kidney beans, green bell pepper and elbow macaroni. all put together in one pot like a stew (beef having been sauteed first). The only seasoning ( this is what gives it it's unique and addictive flavor) is white vinegar, white sugar, and whole cloves.
No salt, no pepper, garlic onion, etc...these would completely change it.

So. Do you recognize this dish? It's close cousin? Some amazing foreign recipe that may have been bastardized beyond recognition? I don't even know where on the planet this would've originated.
If anyone has any insights I would love to solve the mystery of the origins of the family goulash.
posted by newpotato to Food & Drink (51 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't, but this question immediately brought to mind this thread.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:31 PM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

In my family, what you describe is Slumgullion. It can have green peppers, that recipe just doesn't include them. There are many variations. We make it with egg noodles.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:33 PM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

My FIL made it for his younger siblings every week when they were growing up in New Jersey. They called it Friday Night Special, I think, or else Saturday Night Special? It's surprisingly tasty.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:35 PM on October 3, 2014

Others in this thread describe similar recipes as "American Goulash," "American Chop suey," and "Johnny Marzetti."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:37 PM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

My family's version was also called goulash. We omitted the beans and green peppers. I was not fond of it because I didn't like the texture of the cooked tomatoes. I don't have any memory of the seasoning.

I grew up in Texas and Montana. Don't remember neighbors or family commenting one way of the other.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:41 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

My family made the same dish, minus the beans, which we also called goulash. I was in my mid-20s before I learned what real goulash is.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:42 PM on October 3, 2014

We called this 'goulash' too, upper midwest.
posted by Think_Long at 1:45 PM on October 3, 2014

My mother made something similar. She called it "Savoury Mince" because ground beef is Mince where she's from. She had 2 Savoury Mince recipes the other in the other Worcestershire sauce & corn kernels were involved instead. She was originally from the UK.
posted by wwax at 1:45 PM on October 3, 2014

I would call this goulash.

I make something similar to this but add worcestershire sauce, use whole chopped tomatoes, and a little onion. What makes it "goulash" and not Italian or Tex-Mex is the absence of oregano, chili powder, cayenne, etc. Your version sounds intriguing with the cloves. When someone adds oregano and garlic and olive oil to this kind of thing it becomes "spaghetti" and is no longer goulash in my eyes.
posted by Fairchild at 1:48 PM on October 3, 2014

Family goulash is a great term for it. I grew up vegetarian and ours ("casserole") featured broccoli in with the tomatoes and macaroni.
posted by kmennie at 1:48 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

My family didn't call it goulash, but boxed mac & cheese topped with canned diced tomatoes was definitely a Thing (particularly for Utah family members).
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 1:49 PM on October 3, 2014

Ground beef plus kidney beans and tomato is chili, no matter what else you add. If it "doesn't have chili spices" that's called mild chili.
posted by Sara C. at 1:50 PM on October 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This was a staple made by my grandmother when my mom was growing up, albeit minus the kidney beans. It had the distinct honor of being called Glup. My mom made it when I was a kid, and I've never known it by any other name.
posted by missmary6 at 1:57 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Our family called this "train wreck," because if you are horror-minded the macaroni look like arm bones, and the meat and tomatoes, well -- I think you see where I'm going with this. (It wasn't until I was a teenager that I realized why it was called Train Wreck.)
posted by chowflap at 1:58 PM on October 3, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: My grandmother made this and called it Goulash, though it had no beans and I'm pretty sure no cloves, though the sugar and vinegar with the tomatoes sounds right. It's definitely not really anything like chili.

She's from Michigan with family roots in Appalachia, but it's just as likely that she pulled it out of Ladies Home Journal or something else like that.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:00 PM on October 3, 2014

Our variation of this is "slop". Or "beef noodles" if we're feeling fancy. My dad used to make something similar he called "homemade hamburger helper".
posted by windykites at 2:01 PM on October 3, 2014

Response by poster: So it's a definitely a goulash (Or a glup. Or a trainwreck). But there is no cheese anywhere in or around this dish, can't even imagine what that would come out tasting like with the vinegar/clove flavor.

I guess it's the combination of the vinegar sugar and clove seasoning that I'd like to find the origin of, then. Was this a common combination back in the day?

Good to know that everyone has their own homey version of it, though :)
posted by newpotato at 2:05 PM on October 3, 2014

My family had a variation of this as well, in upstate NY. We didn't have the vinegar/sugar/clove combo but did have a little onion if I recall correctly, and possibly cheese. My grandma called it goulash too.
posted by bedhead at 2:10 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: Just got off the phone with my grandmother; in the early 50s, when she was a newlywed, there was an article in Family Circle that boasted 100 things to make with ground beef, which was just 33 cents a pound. She found the recipe there, and it became a family staple. The name Glup came a decade later, when my uncle was a little kid.
posted by missmary6 at 2:11 PM on October 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think every family has its own variant on this kind of dish, and there are probably a gabillion different names for it; what I think is really going on, though, is that this is the kind of dish that one of my old roommates named "EverythingInAPot" - where you just throw some vegetables and ground meat into a pot with enough broth to cook the pasta and enough pasta to make it substantial and you called it dinner. The original recipe your family was probably improvised by someone in your family or someone they knew, based on whatever was around that needed using up. Since it worked, they kept doing it.

I doubt that it's got any real "ethnic" origin so much as it was something born of "shit, all I have is some ground beef and some pasta and a half an onion - hell, throw it all in together, I don't know what the hell else to do".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:14 PM on October 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My Italian/Hungarian family from Cleveland called it goulash. It was almost exactly the same recipe you named except the clove, and a proper goulash necessitated corn. Interesting! I haven't though about the stuff in years.
posted by lesalvo at 2:30 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: My Dad, from Appalachia, made this all the time and he called it that. His Dad did too. He put tomato juice in it as well.
posted by brownrd at 2:33 PM on October 3, 2014

This sounds very similar to a dish that my mother would prepare sometimes. She called it goulash too.

I can't confirm that every ingredient you list was the same as her version, but the broad strokes are the same, so one more vote for "this is a thing."
posted by owls at 2:35 PM on October 3, 2014

I wrote the question that needs more cowbell linked to - my family makes their version of this with allspice, which seems close to the flavor of cloves your family uses. Seems the cloves are what really make yours stand apart - that and the vinegar, which brings to mind a play on sloppy joe.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 2:39 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm having a vague memory of having something very much like this when I'd visit my dad and stepmom - her family was German, so maybe the vinegar/sugar thing was a play on sauerbraten flavors?
posted by rtha at 2:43 PM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

My mom called that a washday casserole.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:03 PM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My family's American Chop Suey recipe has cloves and vinegar in it and is almost exactly the recipe you describe. (Nobody in my generation likes it but it's still in the family cookbook!) When I was looking at the recipe one day as a teenager I asked my mom why in the world you'd put cloves in such a dish and she said she wasn't sure but it seemed like cloves were a holiday spice and what would you do if you had a bunch left over that you needed to use up?

We're Jews predating Ellis Island, primarily from New York and New Jersey but spread out to Texas and Maine; the Chop Suey recipe comes, I think, from the New Jersey people, who were more German Jews than the New York folks who were Russian Jews. What's funny about all of this is that none of our holiday recipes involve cloves at all!
posted by Mizu at 3:19 PM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My husband grew up in western New York and calls his version of this goulash too, fwiw. His family is mainly German and English. He was astonished when I added paprika.
posted by cestmoi15 at 3:23 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I grew up with a similar dish, I suspect the seasoning mutated along ethnic groups and family lines (my version came from my mother's German family, didn't include the sugar or vinegar)...yep, we call it goulash.

It's a comfort food, and great to make a three day supply and warm it up, gets better every day. The only cheese we use (well, my wife does) is grated parmesan.

Thanks, everyone for the variations, I plan to give some of them a shot.
posted by HuronBob at 3:28 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

We also called it "slop"--i think it's nasty--back when young Air Force officers were only paid once a month, it was a common end-of-the-month dish. My husband (who was raised in an Army household) grew up eating a version of it, too, but they called it something else.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:38 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: My grandma (2nd generation Norwegian raised in MN, for what it's worth) also made this!!! I could only vaguely remember what was in it beyond elbow macaroni, hamburger and beans, and have been wondering for years if it was something she made up herself! Thanks for this thread. I'm going to have to introduce my kids to this one of these cold nights (I'm sure they'll hate it!).
posted by goggie at 4:15 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: My stepmum makes this and calls it goulash as well. She's Nova Scotian and has been making this for 40-50 years. I'd never heard of it until she served it for supper one evening (I prefer "real" goulash—more like this).
posted by angiep at 4:22 PM on October 3, 2014

The vinegar/cloves/tomato combo reminds me of koshari and similar North African or Middle Eastern lentil/pasta/rice dishes. I have no idea whether they may have a common influence with American goulash recipes, though.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:31 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: We called something like that american chop suey.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:59 PM on October 3, 2014

My German-Swiss mother was raised in New Jersey via Iowa, and we ate a very similar dish, also called goulash, on a regular basis. There might have been bell pepper, but I don't recall for sure. There was definitely no cheese and no vinegar, either. Dried garlic cloves and garlic salt were the main flavor notes. (FWIW, I didn't know what a garlic clove was until I had graduated college.)
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:31 PM on October 3, 2014

The cloves, vinegar and sugar made me immediately think of sauerbraten.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:19 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: It's the vinegar and sugar that's intriguing to me. I wonder whether it started as an attempt to make the tomatoes taste more like home canned? I Have a vague sense that my mother back when she used to can tomatoes would add vinegar and sugar to them.
posted by lollusc at 6:24 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: Oh, and just reading the serious eats link made me wonder if the vinegar and sugar might have been an attempt to get a flavour similar to soy sauce, which might not have been a pantry staple for most Americans back then, but might have been seen as necessary if the recipe originated as this "American chop suey" thing.
posted by lollusc at 6:27 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up with this as well, my mom was from the Midwest. We called it goulash and put a slice of (usually mozzarella) cheese on top and let it melt while we did the before dinner prayer. I could never focus on the prayer when we had this dish and would always try to stealthily watch as the cheese went from solid to melty.
posted by HMSSM at 7:15 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sounds like Midwest Goulash to me. My mother always made it with sauteed onions and garlic powder, but I've seen plenty of recipes with allspice. Clove sounds like a decent substitute for allspice (maybe originally done because of availability, maybe just a by-tongue guess).

That is, it sounds within the realm of obvious variations to goulash of Midwest origin, also called "American chop suey" by swaths of people.

My mother's recipe started with ground beef, then added chopped onion; drained off the grease, added a can or two of plain tomato sauce; added garlic powder, a small amount of paprika or hot pepper flakes, black pepper, salt; and other seasonings to taste in later years. Then the cooked elbow macaroni.

Usually it was "manager's special" ground beef that had been lurking in the freezer for a while and store-brand tomato sauce. Basically passed-down Depression-style food.
posted by WasabiFlux at 8:06 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: I grew up with the "goulash" version - no beans, no cloves, just hamburger, macaroni noodles, canned tomatoes, onion or garlic, maybe some mushrooms or cheese -

but - as for the cloves, I use 4 whole cloves stuck into onion halves in my split pea soup (no bay leaf) and everyone says my split pea soup is to die for - and I agree ; ). There's no flavor of cloves in the soup at all, which seems odd since cloves are a fairly strong spice. Also, when I was a kid, people added beans to anything and everything to make it stretch.

Don't know about the vinegar and sugar idea unless it's to increase/decrease/balance the acidity from the canned tomatoes, but it could be a way of getting the sauerbraten flavor into this dish.

I make "goulash" every once in awhile - guess I'll try it with a couple of cloves next time.
posted by aryma at 9:58 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: We grew up on this exact dish - American chop suey.
posted by tristeza at 10:18 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: Ahh, slumgullian! My dad used to make this ALL the time when I was growing up, and I've always loved it. He was also raised on it, and his mom comes from Italy (so, I'm assuming she brought the recipe with her). Also, thanks for the reminder, I know what I'm making for dinner next week!
posted by I_love_the_rain at 12:00 AM on October 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We called it slumgullion, and rarely ate it (dad didn't like it -- I think because his mom made it a lot when he was a kid). My MIL made a similar dish and called it goulash -- she used ketchup instead of vinegar&sugar . Mum's goulash was ground beef, canned tomatoes (from last summer), green beans, green pepper (frozen from last summer), onion, paprika, cooked and served over separately cooked noodles/macaroni -- imagine my surprise when I had MIL's goulash!
posted by jlkr at 7:03 AM on October 4, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all, this is great. So I guess it is a version of goulash/american chop suey/slumgullion/etc based on whatever random ingredients and available spices are around, which in Western NY at the time would have been somewhat limited.
Glad to hear a few people have heard of the vinegar/sugar/clove combo at least.
Next step, try to feed some to friends for reactions.
posted by newpotato at 8:06 AM on October 4, 2014

That was a staple in my childhood in the 70's, Mom called it goulash too but it bears no resemblance to the actual goulash. She would make it up and leave it on low on the stove all evening, we would serve ourselves. This was back in pre-microwave days. I'm from a large family so it was always a huge stockpot.

I hated it then and wouldn't dream of eating it now. It had no flavor and the macaroni would get so mushy from being on the stove for hours, yuk! Hopefully there are others out there making it with some flavor, cause what we were served was truly bland & awful.

The only worse dish we got in those days was what we called mince, potatoes & beans, or 'glop' which was marginally improved with a liberal dose of ketchup. Well six boys & one girl they had to stretch the food budget & we all survived childhood intact.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 8:16 AM on October 4, 2014

Philippine adobo has the vinegar and sugar, haven't seen a recipe with clove. German Sauerbraten has vinegar, sugar and clove, so I think it's probably a variation on American chop suey/ goulash with German roots.
posted by theora55 at 9:45 AM on October 4, 2014

Someone may have had the idea of using the recipe for Sauerbraten Klopse (sauerbraten meatballs) to make a goulash-type dish that would feed more people. (Also, I noticed this handed-down sloppy joe recipe that includes vinegar, sugar and clove, so it is a thing that's out there in the wild, in some form, anyway!)
posted by taz at 9:47 AM on October 4, 2014

I think people just like the word "goulash" (and why not?). It's been my wife's word for beef (or, in her case, soy burger substitute) with boxed mac and cheese, canned tomatoes and peppers for as long as I've known her, even though I'm Eastern European and I know from goulash.
posted by dlugoczaj at 10:22 AM on October 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I grew up eating this and calling it "goulash," though the spice blend was different ( I think ours had salt and pepper and paprika and maybe some garlicky something but no cloves that I can recall.) Ours had corkscrew pasta instead of elbows, too. My parents are both from Michigan, both sides of my dad's family having emigrated from Russia a few generations back.
posted by contraption at 11:58 AM on October 4, 2014

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