This week, a tweet from @TimmyTwoShirts drew attention to a surprisingly controversial question: what’s this dish called?
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While the mix of ground beef, macaroni and tomato sauce sounds simple enough, thousands of users have responded with a slew of different names. Beefaroni, goulash, slumgullion, Johnny Marzetti, American Chop Suey – the list goes on. But how was this cocotte born, and why does no one agree on its name?
The dish as we know it has several origins. For those who call it goulash, your recipe may have come from a 1914 edition of Women’s Educational Club Cookbook. This iteration called for simmering cubes of beef before adding tomatoes, paprika, tabasco and onion juice. While it may share a name with classic Eastern European goulash, its Hungarian connection is flimsy at best.
Around the same time, the 1916 Handbook for army cooks published their recipe for American chop suey. Rather than using paprika, chunks of meat were braised in broth and barbecue sauce. The stew was usually served over rice in an effort to resemble its inspiration: the Chinese-American dish chop suey.
These dishes may have been the starting point, but over time they have taken on a life of their own. Later versions of the casserole played with different aromatics and ingredients like cabbage, peppers and olives, before the dish began to be streamlined in the 1960s. Instead of tough cuts of stew meat, the recipes started asking for quick cook ground beef. The traditional accompaniment of rice was also replaced by spaghetti, then macaroni. The dish became a catch-all casserole that could breathe new life into leftover ingredients.
What didn’t simplify, however, was the name. In fact, even more nicknames for pasta casserole have been coined over time. Some names were tied to a region, such as casserole dish Johnny Marzetti from Columbus, Ohio. Others were suitcases of ingredients, like beefaroni and chili mac.
But some of the most popular names follow the early 20th century trend of borrowing names from existing dishes. The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink notes the pattern of American one-pot diners taking on the names of mixed plates from around the world, such as goulash, chop suey, and slumgullion (from the British salmagundi).
Although they may come from different sources of inspiration, the names represent the same concept in spirit. No matter how you grew up making this pasta casserole and no matter what nickname you use, you’re still enjoying an important piece of American cooking history.
We were curious to see where the Delish team was on the subject, so we asked our own food experts. Everyone came up with something different: ‘Hamburger Helper’, ‘Macaroni Cheeseburger’, ‘Goulash’ and even ‘Beef and Macaroni’.
But one thing we all agree on is that it’s the ultimate weeknight meal. Check out our classic goulash recipe or spice it up with these cheese, chili or sloppy joe versions.
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