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.

45 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

  4. My Mom’s version during the ’60s was called spaghetti… ground beef with chopped onion, Ragu sauce, Mueller’s elbow macaroni… made it for my kids but used different tomato sauce, usually homemade… didn’t need a fork, soup spoon works.

    1. Pat, it’s definitely similar to what many of us think of when we have spaghetti. Thanks for sharing your family’s version.

  5. I grew up in West Virginia and my mother called the dish “Goololli,” a version of Goulash I suppose. I do still make it as a comfort food even though the kids moved out long ago. Contents may vary depending on what is in the pantry and refrigerator, and I long ago substituted ground turkey for the ground beef.

    1. Julie, that’s the great thing about family recipes, how they can change and adapt over time. Thanks for sharing your food history memory.

    1. Jane, It’s so interesting to hear everyone’s experience. I’ve been surprised how many people have said they do remember it from their school lunches. Thanks for sharing!

    2. I also am from Ohio and it was the same as Jane mentioned. I buy the Stouffer’s Mac N’ Beef when I need a “cheer me up”.

  6. So interesting. If you add in a can of red beans, this was exactly my husband’s version of what he called pasta fagioli, and I could never figure out why, because I’ve never been in an Italian restaurant that served what he made. It was so, so good, though! Mine never comes out the way his did. 🙂

  7. At our house it was called American Chop Suey. I grew up outside of Boston. Ground beef, elbow macaroni and tomato soup. Might have had celery and onions. My father had an allergic reaction to onions and garlic in large quantities so we never used much. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories. This was one of the first meals I learned to cook on my own.

  8. My family calls this goulash but we always add in frozen corn. My husband and I still eat it every once in a while. One time my daughter had to prepare a box dinner for a fundraiser. It was around Halloween so her box dinner consisted of “spooky” foods. The main dish was “ghoulash.” I remember the woman who purchased the dinner said she hated goulash (the traditional recipe) but I assured her this was only ground beef, onion, corn, tomato sauce, seasonings and elbow macaroni. She was still hesitant but she ate it!

  9. I must be one of the few Americans who never had this growing up or even heard of it. I’m from the NYC area. When I got married, I bought a cookbook, “Betty Crocker Dinner for Two.” I found a recipe with the elegant name “Macaroni Beef Saute.” It was none other than this dish. It became one of my standards, with lots of seasonal additions, like zucchini. As our children grew, I re-named it “Little League Dinner” because it was so easy to make for an early dinner or sit for a couple of hours and eat later after a practice or game. It was always just as good. And that’s what it is still called by my family, including my grandchildren. Though my daughter-in-law uses ground turkey as a healthier substitute for beef. I like the beef!

    1. Virginia, I LOVE this story. Macaroni Beef Sauce is much more elegant. There are also some readers with home gardens who probably should consider using up their zucchini bounty that way. Thanks so much for sharing your family food history!

  10. How I enjoyed reading the article. We always called it Goulash. Since we had a large family, mom would always cook the ground beef, onions and would add salt and pepper. Would cook the noodles. Mom would also add cans of tomato soup or cans of tomato sauce. If we had any ketchup left over mom would add water to the ketchup bottle and shake the bottle real good. We also added cheese on top of the dish. Into the oven the dinner would go and mom would cook it at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. OMG! It was so good. It was also good the next day. Mom knew how to stretch the money. How those recipes just brought memories back to me. I think I’ll make the dish for this weekend.

    1. Mary, cheese makes everything better, doesn’t it? I love your memory. Isn’t it great how food can remind us of our own more recent family history? Thanks so much for sharing yours.

  11. My mother raised four kids between 1919 and 1945 in Akron, Ohio. The oldest was born in 1919 and the youngest in 1937 (me), so she experienced both the great depression and World War II while raising a family — so we had this dish quite often and she always called it Goulash. Most of our family including my great grandchildren still enjoy it to this day.

    1. Walter, it’s a great dish for feeding kids on a budget, isn’t it? Those two historical events, the Great Depression and World War II, required moms to create meals with very little. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  12. It’s crazy how one version has so many onions. Would any of us think to need 12 onions to make any recipe these days?
    My mother made this when we were kids in the 70s. She called it goulash and her family is from Kansas. German immigrants.

    1. Monique, so you’re not a fan of 12 onions ;). Times change and so do taste. Obviously not all recipes versions are great. Thanks for sharing your family food history with us.

  13. I still make this for dinner, it’s one of my comfort foods. In my family we called it “Glop” or “Shells” (if we used shell macaroni). I grew up in Connecticut.

    1. Kathy, I still make it as well. I like your names for it. Funny how our families “name” favorite meals. Thanks for sharing that!

  14. I remember this recipe well. I used it quite often when my two children were little and we had barely an extra dime to spare. It was called Goulash in our family. I used the ground beef, onions, chopped tomatoes, macaroni — usually elbow — but I used others to make it look a little different too. I would also add tomato sauce as needed and shredded cheese which was usually cheddar. If I baked it in the oven I would add bread crumbs or panko on top for a little crunch. I used to use Italian seasoning in it but my daughter doesn’t like rosemary. She always called them “sticks.” To this day I tease her about the sticks and she will turn 50 at the end of the year. Now she makes it for her family too.

  15. We called this goulash when I was growing up. My parents were from Illinois and it seems very Midwest. I never liked it, actually, because I didn’t like ground beef as a kid. It was ground beef, onion, elbow macaroni, and some type of tomato sauce. I have never made it as an adult but I do eat the frozen dinners of beef and macaroni and like them! I’m inspired to give it a try as an adult with some new seasonings and a 2020 twist.

    1. Sara, you could definitely add a 2020 twist. Maybe it will become a new favorite for you? Thanks for sharing your family food history.

  16. Goulash! I still make it for just my husband and myself, but it was a staple when all four of our children were home (and when I was growing up as one of six children). I have tried it on the grandchildren, but their parents don’t make it so it is “foreign” to them. I just saute one large chopped up onion and two or three stalks of chopped up celery in butter, then add about one to one and a half pounds of hamburger to brown it. Meanwhile 2 cups of macaroni are cooking according to package directions. Drain the macaroni. Put everything in a casserole dish, add one large can crushed or diced tomatoes. Mix well, adding salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Heavily sprinkle top with grated Parmesan, and bake for at least one-half hour (I prefer one hour) in a 350 degree oven. Takes me less than half an hour to put together, then I can read a book or do some crocheting while it bakes. For my husband and myself it lasts about three or more meals. I just add little side dishes the times it’s a leftover.

    1. Connie, isn’t it funny how some foods that were the norm for us growing up may seem strange to the younger generation in our family? I so appreciate that you shared your version with us. Thanks for doing that.

  17. Growing up in Michigan in the 50s, we ate this dish which we called “goulash.” We also ate “chop suey” which consisted of bite sized pork pieces, chopped celery and onion, a can of chopped mushrooms, a can of LaChoy chop suey vegetables and soy sauce. This was served over rice. I still make both recipes today.

    1. Linda, your description of “chop suey” reminds me of the canned LaChoy Chinese food we use to eat. Thanks for sharing that!

  18. My family had this often -– we called it “mystery”! Ground beef, onion, canned STEWED tomatoes, elbow macaroni. I add a can of tomato paste to make sure it is tomatoey in flavor. We always had it for dinner on Halloween trick-or-treating night in Windsor, Connecticut, in the 1950s-1960s. I made it as a Halloween tradition for my son, growing up in north central Florida.

    1. Karen, it sounds like you’re not the only one who served it on Halloween. Thanks for sharing that family tradition.

  19. What a coincidence reading this, since I have leftovers in my refrigerator right now. My recipe doesn’t have an interesting name nor does it go back to my childhood, but it is full of flavor. I got the recipe from the butcher counter in an upscale market in 1987. My mother was fond of this dish, along with my husband and son. Now, my granddaughter is a fan. This means four generations of my family have enjoyed this recipe. Ground beef, onions, bell peppers, sharp Cheddar cheese, Ortega green chilies, tomato sauce, Mexican stewed tomatoes, Lea & Perrins, chili powder, and elbow macaroni.

  20. I am part Hungarian Gypsy. This is nothing like goulash which we call gulyás. Mom never really had a name for what is pictured, she just said we are having macaroni tonight. Very simple, ground beef, macaroni, chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper. Nothing else! (Except buttered bread for the side.) As I got older and did cooking for myself I started calling it Beefy Macaroni. Love this stuff!

    1. Thomas, it definitely isn’t real Hungarian goulash. But like you mentioned, it is good. Thanks for sharing your family food history.

  21. Growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1950s & 1960s, we had this dish quite often. My mother added baked beans to it, and called it Michigan Hash. She made “chop suey” similar to what someone above described, with pork and canned chop suey vegetables, canned mushrooms, and water chestnuts. She also made a dish with ground beef and egg noodles that she called John’s Dinner, and I haven’t been able to find a recipe that matches what I remember of it.

  22. I just have to add my story. I had it as a kid growing up, but when I got married, my wife’s family called it Hayes’ Special. That name came about because her father made it when my wife’s mother was gone and he was in charge of dinner. That was what he called it. He got the recipe from a fellow missionary, whose last name was Hayes, when he was serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Midwest just prior to World War II. Apparently this fellow missionary would make this whenever it was his turn to cook. Now all of our children and the children of my wife’s siblings still call it Hayes’ Special.

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