There are many dishes that are created out of a need to reduce cost and make the most of what you already have. Chili is historically a poor-man’s meal, and so is chili mac. So here we have a double whammy of a frugal concoction: a way to stretch chili, which is already a meal designed to stretch a buck (or cow, or pig…).
I was curious how this whole creation started. It seemed to me to be a classic grade school cafeteria menu item, and, turns out, that’s where it came from! Some thrifty lunch lady back in the ‘60s threw it together and created a classic. Well, either that or a restaurant owner in Ohio in the ’20s made this one up and named the casserole Johnny Marzetti after his brother.
Hmmmm, so once again we have some conflicting stories in the annals of culinary anthropology- seems to happen quite a bit. This is an actual recipe from Knoch High School cafeteria circa 1960:
1 pound ground chuck
1 onion, diced (we used a medium size)
1 green pepper, diced
1 teaspoon oil
1 large can tomatoes (29 ounces)
1 large can tomato juice
1 pound elbow macaroni, cooked
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Garlic salt, to taste
Brown meat, onion and green pepper in oil.
Drain, then add tomatoes, tomato juice and spices.
Add cooked macaroni to sauce. Simmer 10 minutes and serve.
They call the dish by the same name of the alleged Ohio story, so perhaps both tails are true. Created in Ohio and then popularized by the lunch ladies? Or perhaps some credit for the popularity should also be given to one of the most iconically American semi-ready-made, budget saver creations: Hamburger Helper!
Chili mac has become one of those ubiquitous casseroles that, chances are, most of us grew up eating in some form. Typically an amalgam of ready to use products (this version calls for Taco Bell brand salsa) with a recipe so simple that a latch-key 13 year old can make it for himself for dinner (really Betty Crocker? This recipe is the best you could come up with?).
Of course once you call it a “classic” or “nostalgic” dish, all the celeb chefs suddenly want a piece (Ah em, EMERIL!). Rachel Ray got so fancy with it that she needs ONE HUNDRED minutes for this recipe. Surprisingly though, she can still pull off bouef bourguignon in under 30… kitchen gimmickry at its finest.
For this recipe, it had to be yummy, simple, and cheap. Nothing more. Nothing less. Not that there really could be anything less…. I think the ingredients in this one are stretched as far as they can go!
In a large pot over medium heat, brown 1 ½ lbs of ground beef along with 1 medium sweet onion, finely diced (about 1 cup). Drain the grease and return the pot to the stove over low heat. Add in one medium green bell pepper, finely diced (about 1 cup), one 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes (drained), 1 t ground oregano, 2 T ground cumin, 2 t garlic powder, 2 t salt, 1 T chili powder, 1 t paprika, 1 T Worcestershire sauce, 2 ½ c beef broth, one 6oz can of tomato paste, and ½ t ground cinnamon. Stir to combine, cover, and let it cook for 30 minutes, stirring after 15 minutes.
Stir in 12 oz of cooked macaroni noodles and 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese prior to plating
My kitchen helpers waiting for bell pepper scraps: