American Chop Suey

Iron-willed does not even begin to describe my mom. When I was six, she gave birth to my youngest brother, G, and fell into a post-partum depression from which it took nearly a decade to emerge. For the first few years, most days she was still in bed when we came home from school. But somehow, once we were there and wreaking the havoc three boys and a girl create, she’d pull herself out of bed and start making dinner. She always, always, baked cupcakes to send to school on our birthdays. Many Friday afternoons were spent baking challah for Shabbat. And she was often a chaperone on class trips. I can’t quite reconcile my memories of tiptoeing into her darkened bedroom with knowing how involved she remained in our lives. I can only chalk it up to Herculean strength of will.

As if it wasn’t difficult enough to be in the throes of an untreated depression—my dad’s insurance didn’t cover mental health care—we were also quite poor by local Westchester standards. Daddy didn’t make bad money, I don’t think—he was a chemist, and ran the lab for a local company—but there were four kids to feed and clothe, and doctor bills, and the facts that Mommy grew up with money and we lived in a wealthy community lent a certain Keeping Up with the Joneses urgency to the situation. As a family, we felt poor, all the time. We were evicted from one apartment while my mother was heavily pregnant with G, and the rent on the new place was almost always at least a month behind—my dad would catch up out of his yearly Christmas bonus, but by February we’d be behind again. Once we were all teenagers or beyond, my mom told us that the only reason we hadn’t been evicted from there as well was because the landlord appreciated how well-behaved we four were in public. Honorable poverty, perhaps. If he only knew what battles raged behind our apartment door, of both the sibling variety and the more terrifying parental ones…

Six nights a week, Mommy put dinner on the table—on Thursdays, payday, Daddy would pick up pizza from Sal’s, but the rest of the time was home cooking. We’d eat at 5:30, when Daddy came home, so he could be on time to his second job selling televisions at Korvette’s. I cannot imagine how she did this—I have a hard enough time cooking for me and S four or five nights a week, and money for food isn’t an issue here. How did she nightly feed six people (with massive amounts of food, no less, since we’d almost all want seconds every night), on a tight budget with kosher meat, which cost nearly double at the time? Why wasn’t she pulling her hair out from the stress of satisfying her children’s picky appetites? Somehow, she fed us all, and well. Mostly it was a question of using inexpensive ingredients, fleshed out with a little meat. Saturday nights were for hot dogs or spaghetti—and sometimes combined, in a bizarrely delicious dish involving sautéed sliced hot dogs and onions and jarred sauce. Perhaps once a week it was frozen food, like fish sticks. Wonderful homemade macaroni and cheese, using a recipe from her Oster blender handbook. Hamburgers. Salami and eggs. Friday nights, Shabbat, were mostly chicken or a roast—if I remember correctly, that was the only night of the week when we regularly had a piece of meat as the main course. Even things like chicken cutlets were beyond our budget’s reach for weeknights.

One of our favorite weeknight dinners was American Chop Suey. It’s not even remotely Chinese, made as it is with elbow macaroni, ground beef, tomato sauce, and Worcestershire—the name is a mystery to me. My mom can’t remember anymore where she got the recipe, and for years I assumed it was just some clipping from a random women’s magazine. But when S and I were on our New England honeymoon, we saw it on the menus of several home-style restaurants. It turns out it’s a local dish, and since my mom’s originally from outside Boston that makes sense. I couldn’t bring myself to try it up there—the idea of eating a dish from my money-haunted childhood in a restaurant was too contrary for me—but when we got home I asked my mom for her recipe. I’ve made it several times since, substituting ground turkey for the beef, and boy does it bring back memories. It’s a great, fast supper, filling and cozy and satisfying. The Worcestershire adds a mellow richness to it, taking the acidic tang off the tomato sauce. And best of all, the recipe makes plenty of leftovers.

American Chop Suey

Olive oil
1 ½ lbs ground meat [growing up it was beef, but I use a combo of ground turkey breast and “regular” ground turkey]
½ lb (2 c.) uncooked elbow macaroni
½ c minced onion
½ c chopped pepper or celery [if I have them, I use both red peppers & celery; my mom usually made it with green peppers & celery]
2 8-oz cans tomato sauce
1 c water
1 t salt
¼ t pepper
1-1 ½ T Worcestershire sauce

(make sure your pan is large enough—I made a one-and-a-half recipe and you can see the results!)

In a large sauté pan, heat a glug or two of olive oil [if you’re using ground beef you probably don’t need the oil]. Brown the meat and remove. Wipe out the pan, and add a little more oil. When it’s heated, sauté the macaroni and whatever chopped vegetables you’re using, until the onion is soft. Return the browned meat to the pan and add tomato sauce, water, s&p, and Worecestershire. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes.