Mary Beth Writes


We’d been married about five minutes when I offered to make goulash for dinner. Len was happy about this. Can’t remember what he said, but his tone of voice was sprightly. Len loves tasty things to eat.

I made it just like my mom made it. Fry hamburger as one boils noodles or elbow macaroni. Stir those entities together in a casserole dish with condensed tomato soup. The culinary secret is to not add water to the soup. You remember.

Maybe cover it with foil, put in the oven, bake at 350 for 45 minutes to a couple hours. Take the foil off the last ten minutes to get the top crunchy.

I did these things although by then I was pretty sophisticated so I may have sauteed some garlic and onions with the meat.

I brought it to the table. Len looked at the casserole dish with concern.

“I thought you were making goulash?”

I was as confused as he was.

“I did. This is goulash!”

“No, it isn’t.”

It wasn’t the best evening of our new marriage.

A few months later we ate at a small Hungarian restaurant under the El stop at Western and Lincoln. That’s when I understood. Goulash is beef chunks simmered for hours, vibrant with paprika, served over noodles so thick and chewy they would make a food critic weep. Red wine might be in in the meaty sauce and is definitely in the goblet next to one’s plate.

I’ve never made it since. Just never got around to it. When one of you suggested ‘G is for Goulash’, I suggested to Len that he make chicken goulash. Cuz beef is so expensive right now, right?

He tried but it was, well, turnabout is fair play, right? It wasn’t great. We only had smoked paprika. I don’t know what else he put in the simmering sauce, but it had that rare hint of burnt plastic. He’s probably going to look at me over the top of his glasses for saying so, but it’s incredibly rare for a Leonard meal to fail – but it does happen.

He ate most of the chicken over the next few days and the yucky sauce went to yucky sauce heaven.

Goulash means 'herd of cattle' and ‘guys who herd’ in Hungarian. Goulash is a stew made by herders for herders. A thousand years ago central plains herders kept track of sheep. Over time they also herded cattle. However, no one ever went Brokeback Mountain on chicken herding, which is why our goulash didn’t work.

The recipe begins with a tough chunk of a 4-legged animal. You are the not-rich herder/farmer so you don’t get the filet, you know? You get the shoulders, ankles, haunches, other tough well-exercised parts. The meat stews a long time which breaks down the collagen which becomes its own thickener. Paprika also thickens the sauce. Goulash never is thickened with a flour or other grain-based roux. This is simply tough meat cooked all day.

Potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes are okay, but only if you live post-Columbus - those are New World American foods. Paprika is dried and pulverized sweet red peppers; it didn’t join the goulash recipe until  the last few centuries.

Goulash is now considered one of the awesome, specialized foods of several eastern European and central plains Asian nations. When we want to eat it in all its glory we go to ethnic restaurants.

Which is ironic. The foods we love the best and cook the least are inexpensive foods made from local, at-hand, sustainable ingredients. Often no one knows how to cook these delights anymore except rare older folks who lived on too little income a very long time.

This morning I prepped for a simple birthday event this afternoon for my young friends. I didn’t want to drive out and spend a random bunch of money to get pizza and cupcakes; I knew I could make these things at home. So just this just this morning I made chocolate cupcakes, icing, pizza sauce, shredded a bunch of cheese, and fried Italian sausage we had in the freezer. Will make the pizza dough this afternoon.

It took three hours.

Cooking inexpensive foods at home takes effort and time. It makes a mess. The pedometer app on my watch says I walked a mile in my own dang kitchen doing the above.

Maybe we should use ‘goulash’ as a verb. It could mean to use the modest ingredients at hand to cook something tasty to share with others.

“Come on over, I’ll goulash up something.”

Have a good weekend.



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