As I honor the women in my history this month, my paternal Grandmother Ruthie’s spirit remains especially strong. She lived just down the driveway from us in a small house that was the safe haven my brothers would “run away to,” toting suitcases and trusted stuffed animals, when parental rules were too stifling.
I too would visit frequently but not under such duress. Grandma and I would bake, watch Lawrence Welk together, listen to Montovani and his Orchestra on the Magnavox, or have an occasional sleepover. Her Downy-scented clothing and the floral notes of Camay facial soap in her bathroom are my earliest experiences with aromatherapy. Above all, Grandma offered love and, in spite of her mild annoyance with Type 2 diabetes, treats in abundance.
Since I was the last kid in line and now in school, Mom started working outside the house, relying on Grandma to help out periodically with meals. “Mother Boggs,” as Mom affectionately called her, frequently strolled over to our place, dutch oven in hand, with one of our favorites: macaroni and beef. Humble fare, the combination of elbow macaroni, ground beef, diced tomatoes and other goodies, all mixed and slowly simmered, was a gastronomic delight. Because Grandma knew how to season things just right, and Mom did not have to cook after a long day, we all savored every bite.
My brothers do not remember this specific concoction, but it was in weekly rotation when I was still at home. The boys were older, and either working or heavily involved in Scouts with Dad. I, on the other hand, was free to hang out with Grandma and learn a few farm galley skills along the way.
Grandma eventually passed, taking her coveted macaroni and beef recipe with her to the grave. Hopeful that Mom had written down at least a few of Ruthie’s pearls, I discovered this was sadly not the case. In Mom’s defense, she was busy and without the fondness for culinary creation that Grandma had possessed. Compelled to keep the tradition alive, I set out to preserve Ruthie’s legacy and soldier on in the scullery.
And so it was, some years later, with a hankering for that childhood macaroni and beef, that I embarked on a search for a similar prescription. But aside from a few things Mom did remember — that Grandma used stewed tomatoes, a bit of bacon, and some green pepper — it was anyone’s guess. My husband had also eaten a similar dish from his grandmother called “slumgullion” or “goulash.” The unappealing titles notwithstanding, it seemed everyone back in the day had their own iteration of this belly-filling mealtime staple. In the interest of historical accuracy, I perused old cookbooks and online resources. A church tome finally yielded a “noodle dish” that seemed the closest version and I took full liberty from there.
I am happy to report, that after considerable tweaking, the taste from my memory has been serendipitously reproduced. A single bite whisks me back to when Grandma would traverse the gravel from her home to ours, bearing the fruits of her labor in the interest of sustenance, support, and love. This dish also garners the same excitement in my family as it did for us during my childhood. Lifting a lid to reveal its presence on the stove sends my husband and daughters scrambling for bowls.
I still have my Grandmother’s familiar dutch oven, but its pitted interior from heavy use precludes contemporary service. It now happily provides visual joy as an endearing vessel serving up seasonal candles.
During this month of motherhood, I offer you my newfangled iteration of Grandma’s classic. Feel free to make it your own, and remember: this is comfort food, not haute cuisine, best served while lounging on the couch in front of a nice fire or a good movie. I have no doubt that sharing this recipe makes Grandma Ruthie smile. May it make you smile, too. At the very least, I hope this forkful of solace reminds you of some of the accomplished kitchen mavens of your past.
Happy (Belated) Mother’s Day & Enjoy!
Grandma Ruthie’s Mac & Beef
2 lb. ground sirloin
4–5 slices bacon — diced
1 can Campbell’s Tomato Soup (not diluted)
½ of the above soup can of water
1 green pepper, diced
1 small onion, diced
28 oz. can stewed tomatoes — slightly drained, not fully.
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
1 can whole kernel sweet corn
2 c. (dry) elbow macaroni — cooked and drained
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste
Brown the beef approximately 2/3 of the way and drain. Add bacon, onion, and green pepper and sauté till the onion and pepper are soft and the bacon is starting to cook well. Add soup, water, tomato paste, slightly drained stewed tomatoes and seasonings. Simmer to finish cooking the bacon and blend flavors, breaking up the tomatoes into smaller pieces. Meanwhile cook and drain pasta. Add pasta to pan, stir to combine, taste and adjust seasonings. Add corn and stir to combine. Serve in bowls topped with whatever variety of shredded cheese you have laying around.