My memory of dinnertime growing up is that it consisted of four meals: slumgullion, ri-kid-me-on, meatloaf, and Michigan. We always ate them in that order–slumgullion, ri-kid-me-on, meatloaf, Michigan–then started over again with slumgullion. There was no variation. These meals were meant to take a small amount of meat and stretch it out with lots of carbohydates so they could feed a family. With one exception, the meat was always hamburger. I later referred disdainfully to this menu as Great Depression Cuisine, but the truth is I loved all these meals as a child.
The exception to the hamburger rule was slumgullion. Slumgullion was a watery soup made primarily of potatoes, onions and water, with just a little milk. The meat was Libby’s Corned Beef, which came in unusual tapered cans. Nothing else came in such cans, and they also came with their own little key soldered on the bottom. I was intrigued by this for some reason, and always wanted to open the can with the little key, which wasn’t as easy as it would seem. The tapered rectangular shape made it possible to remove the whole piece of canned corned beef, which Mom then broke into chunks and mixed in with the potatoes and onion and water and milk. That was it. No herbs, no spices. Very bland, but I don’t reall anyone complaining about that. It was a family favorite.
I thought the word slumgullion was a part of Herbert family lore, but it is not. If you look it up, it is a generic name for any watery soup made from vegetables and meat. Some recipes include stewed tomatoes, some have mushrooms, some celery, and so forth. And most actually do use hamburger rather than Libby’s canned corned beef. The source of the word slumgullion is apparently Herman Melville: He uses the the word slobgullion in Moby Dick and his other whaling novels to refer to the slimy gurry that whalers used to scrape off the backs of right whales. Slum also is an old word form the muddy sluice from coal mines, and gullion is gaelic for mud, which means slumgullion roughly translates to muddy mud.
The word ri-kid-me-on might have been a Herbert invention, but I’m not sure. It’s an abbreviation for its four ingredients: rice, kidney beans, meat, onion. It was a soupy casserole. The liquid came from the Del Monte canned kidney beans, and as with the slumgullion there were no herbs or spices other than a single bay leaf. That was also true of Michigan, which consisted on potatoes and onion and tomatoes, and of course hamburger. The name is a mystery to me, but I’m guessing it came from the Congdon side of the family, since they were the only family to live in Michigan, after they returned from China. This was Jimmy’s favorite meal for a long time. Meatloaf is meatloaf. Ours actually had large pieces of stale bread in it, not bread crumbs, and sometimes it was moistened and flavored with slices of bacon that cooked on top. It was always served with mashed potatoes and peas, which I made into one side dish on my plate.
Some years ago I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly that changed the way I thought about the Herbert menu–and about cooking in general. It was by Corby Kummer, and must have come out in the late 60s or early 70s because Richard Nixon was president. Nixon’s popularity was plummeting and the press was relentless in making fun of his odd personal habits. At one point he mentioned to some journalist that his favorite lunch (his only lunch really, which he ate every day) was cottage cheese and ketchup. His critics thought this was hilarious, one more indicator of what a social nincompoop he was. Kummer, who was the food writer for the Atlantic, came to his defense. He pointed out that, while putting ketchup on cottage cheese might be a plebian and tacky variation, it was in fact a variation of the classical tradition of combining tomatoes and soft cheese with oil and vinegar. A more sophisticated diner might want fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes and fine virgin olive oil, but the concept was the same. Variations appear in many different cultures.
I left home in 1966, so when I read this article I was completely disdainful of just about everything about my upbringing, including the Great Depression Cuisine. Cummer’s defense did not change my opinion of Nixon, but it did make me rethink food, including slumgullion, ri-kid-me-on, meatloaf and Michigan. I was just getting interested in cooking, and I started rethinking these meals and their ingredients. I started making a variation of ri-kid-me-on that is not unlike Cuban rice and beans, sometimes subbing black beans for Del Monte kidney beans (though I still like those as well) and some cut of steak for hamburger. A little cumin in the beans, some mint and garlic and good olive oil, and it’s ri-kid-me-on redux. Slumgullion, similarly, can be made into something like a minestrone, or pistou, and Susie makes a wonderful beef stew which is basically Michigan without the mysterious name.
I never became disdainful of meatloaf. Some traditions really are sacred. And I always serve meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas, which I make into one side dish on my plate.
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