Regional Food: The Mysterious Case of Soupy Macaroni

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers for American Chop Suey recipes – and to find the various names Americans call this dish. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Recently I gave a presentation on food history and family history. On my presentation’s title slide I had a photo that looked like this:

Photo: Soupy Macaroni
Photo: Soupy Macaroni. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

One of the participants asked me what my name for that dish was. I answered by asking him what he called that dish. Why? Depending on where you grew up or where your family is from, you may have a different recipe name for this combination of ground beef, elbow macaroni, and tomato sauce then I do.

Anyone for American Chop Suey?

Growing up, my mom made a dish called Soupy Macaroni. I thought that no one else ate this dish and that it was something that my mom invented. But I was wrong. This dish is very familiar to lots of people, but we don’t all call it by the same name. In fact, it seems – despite some of the foreign names it’s called – it’s actually more American than apple pie.

It’s probably obvious to you that there are regional food differences. But in some cases, those food differences may not be so much about a different type of food than a variation on a theme. You may go to a restaurant in a different state and that restaurant could serve dishes you are familiar with, but call them something completely different.

A good example of this was the time I was visiting my grandmother in Arizona and my cousin asked me if I wanted to have a burro for dinner. The thought of eating a small horse-like creature resulted in my becoming extremely anxious, only to later relax when I realized she was serving the very familiar-to-me meal of burritos.

Consider a pasta dish that combines macaroni, tomato sauce, and ground beef. In some cases, there might be additional ingredients such as onions, garlic, cheese or green bell peppers. What did your family call this dish?

Depending on where you live, your name for this common recipe might be different than my mom’s “Soupy Macaroni.” People from the New England states call it American Chop Suey. Those from the Midwest call it Goulash or American Goulash.

Other names include:

  • Macaroni Casserole
  • Macaroni and Beef
  • Beefaroni
  • Chili Mac
  • Johnny Martzetti (Ohio)
  • Slumguillion

It’s easy to understand why this dish has been featured in school cafeterias and on family dinner tables. The ingredients are inexpensive and numerous variations of the dish exist, so the cook can customize it with any number of vegetables or other ingredients.

The Recipes

So now that you’ve heard a little bit about American Chop Suey, are you ready to make some for dinner? Historical newspapers, such as those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, have the recipes.

This 1935 recipe printed in the Boston Herald is from the Marjorie Mills Hour radio show, and this article from that broadcast not only gives a recipe for American Chop Suey, it also includes listeners’ housekeeping and food tips – including one from Mrs. Hood of Athol who says to “give flavor to cream soups, especially cream of onion by melting a piece of cheese about the size of a walnut in the soup just before serving.” This American Chop Suey recipe calls for multiple nondescript packages of noodles, canned tomatoes, grated American cheese, onion, chopped beef, celery, and chop suey sauce.

A recipe for American Chop Suey, Boston Herald newspaper article 22 May 1935
Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 May 1935, page 12

As I talked with friends about American Chop Suey and their versions, some commented that they used canned tomato soup instead of tomatoes or a tomato sauce. Canned tomato soup is the ingredient in this recipe that a newspaper reader submitted, using spaghetti, fried onions and pork chops.

A recipe for American Chop Suey,
Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 October 1955, page 30

I love recipes that are submitted by newspaper readers that include their name and residential address, like this one from Mrs. Gordon C. Oakes of 183 Feronia Way, Rutherford, New Jersey. This 1958 take on the combination of macaroni, ground beef, and tomatoes is called American Goulash and also includes bacon, tomato soup, and green peppers.

A recipe for American Chop Suey, Jersey Journal newspaper article 16 July 1959
Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey), 16 July 1959, page 16

Another variation, this time a recipe for Slumguillion, is part of a column dedicated to feeding friends when money is tight – like the days following Christmas. This Slumguillion recipe is a little different from the American Chop Suey recipes featured above since it doesn’t include pasta, but it does include beef, celery leaves and stalks, onions, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes.

A recipe for Slumguillion, Roanoke Times newspaper article 30 December 1951
Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Virginia), 30 December 1951, page 24

Finally, this 2007 American Chop Suey recipe implores would-be cooks to make sure they add more to their creations than just pasta with meat sauce – true American Chop Suey is much more than that. This version has quite a bit going into it, including bacon and soy sauce.

An article about American Chop Suey, Register Star newspaper article 14 March 2007
Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 14 March 2007, page 42
A recipe for American Chop Suey, Register Star newspaper article 14 March 2007
Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 14 March 2007, page 42

I Know What’s for Dinner

I still make “Soupy Macaroni” occasionally. Where did my mom get that name for this dish? I don’t know and she doesn’t remember. I found as I asked my friends about their versions that they sometimes had their own “made-up names” for the dish. These names span the descriptive to the humorous like “Shipwreck,” “Glitch Goulash,” and “Noodle Muck.”* I’ve also had people describe this dish as something their parents made with whatever leftovers existed.

So, what’s your name for the dish that combines macaroni, ground beef, and tomatoes? Was this a dish you ate as a child? Was it something your school served at lunch? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

* Thanks to Sydney Shaffner Gabel, Kristi Sexton, and Amy Urman for sharing their names for this popular dish.

6 thoughts on “Regional Food: The Mysterious Case of Soupy Macaroni

  1. I LOVE THIS DISH! Ate it as a child and still eat it now. Called “Little Italy” in our family. Family originally from Culpeper, VA, but have lived in WV since 1840… Morgantown/Sutton/Fairmont.

    1. Debi, I do too! I was shocked when a friend said she thought it was disgusting. And like you, I sometimes make it now.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!–Gena

  2. My husband and I have been having an ongoing discussion about this. We both grew up and live on Long Island, NY, and both are in our mid-60s. My mother often made American chop suey using celery, onions, green pepper, ground beef, chopped tomatoes, and of course elbow macaroni. My husband’s mother, being Italian, made more of a meat sauce version. I remember there being a distinctive taste to it, but my mother doesn’t remember the seasonings. Growing up in the ’50s I am pretty sure she used tomato soup as it was readily available and quite a novel idea. A few years ago we were at Cannon mountain in NH and there was a cafe with American chop suey — of course we purchased some and it tasted like I remembered. We did ask for the recipe but of course we never received it! It is a well-loved and remembered dish — in fact I would make it tonight but the temp is 94 degrees!

    1. Helen, thanks for that memory! I have had people tell me their families used tomato soup in their version. Thanks for sharing that with us.–Gena

  3. Thank you for this article. Have not thought about goulash for years until I saw your picture. I only made it when the kids lived at home and everyone loved it.

    1. Thank you Karen! I love writing about it because so many people have it as a food/family memory. –Gena

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