Everyone who lives west of Massachusetts thinks they know what this dish is, when I try to describe it. “Oh,” someone from Florida will say, “We eat that, too. It’s called Chili Mac.” Or someone from Arizona will say, “That’s easy to make; that’s Cheeseburger Macaroni.”
No… no, it’s not.
American Chop Suey is a uniquely New England dish comprised, in its most basic (and economical) iteration, of ground beef, elbow macaroni, and some sort of tomato slurry, whether tomato sauce, tomato soup, or V-8 juice. To me, it’s quintessential Maine comfort food, served in healthy economic times and in bad, in grammar school cafeterias, VA hospitals, at bean suppers, and to this day, in many homes throughout the state.
I was first exposed to the dish in 1983, at my best friend Joel’s house. His mother, Lee, was a pharmacy technician at Laverdiere’s in Rockland, and represented my first exposure to what I really came to think of as “Maine food.” My first bright red hot dog swimming in a plateful of baked beans? Hers. My first baked hamsteak, complete with pineapple ring and scalloped potatoes? Also hers. A blue, scratched translucent plastic Tupperware container full of sticky “Coffee Bars,” (which never tasted as good when my own mom tried to make ‘em), or powdered-sugar dusted “Lemon Squares?” They were also hers, located in the cupboard to the left of the sink, up high, above the ancient, huge, wood-paneled microwave. I ate as many meals at their house as I did at my own, as a little kid, sometimes taking it upon myself to stop by and help myself to a snack from their fridge, even when Joel wasn’t at home.
It was for good reason: Joel’s mom’s cooking was different than my mom’s, who was always trying to muck up my five-year-old taste buds with hearts of palm and water chestnuts. And it was delicious. After a particularly rough day at school, where I didn’t make the basketball team (again), or that little bastard Jamie Robbins had smashed my Huffy “Dirt Dog” for the fourth time (that week), I didn’t run home for my mom’s kielbasa-and-artichoke-heart-stir-fry that she had slaved all day over. I went to Joel’s, where there was the two-liter bottle of cold Pepsi, where there was the loaf of white bread, the tub of Country Crock, and the big, endless bowl of American Chop Suey.
Creating a recipe for this entry in our “Classics” series was a bit tricky. In all of our recipes in this category, we work hard to present the best possible version of a dish, without changing what it essentially is. I could create a version of American Chop Suey, and make it with braised short ribs or ground veal, fresh tomatoes, basil, and homemade whole-grain penne pasta, but that just wouldn’t be American Chop Suey. Instead, I tried to keep it not just as easy as it should be, but also keep it true to its origins. Our version of American Chop Suey knows its roots, and would probably pass muster with the most die-hard, grange-hall ACS-eaters, or even with Joel and his parents. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m putting canned condensed tomato soup in it, either.
Our version uses both a dab of ground hot Italian sausage, and a generous heap of red pepper flakes. If you like things a little less spicy, or if you are using particularly spicy sausage, start with just one teaspoon of the red pepper flakes, and adjust from there. Make a big pot of our American Chop Suey, get into your footie-pajamas, light a fire, and get a good game of Rush ‘N’ Attack going. It’s comfort time, baby:
American Chop Suey
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 green pepper, seeded and finely chopped
- 1 lb 80/20 ground beef
- 1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, ground
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- 2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 lb box “Large Elbow” macaroni
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Grated Parmesan cheese, to garnish
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and green pepper, and cook until just softened, about 8 minutes. Add ground beef, ground sausage, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about five minutes. Add whole tomatoes (and juice), crushing the tomatoes with your hands as you add them. Wear an apron. Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, sugar, and cinnamon, and stir well. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, about an hour. While sauce cooks, cook pasta according to package directions, reducing the cooking time by two minutes. Drain pasta, and rinse with cold water. Transfer macaroni to pot of sauce, and stir. Adjust salt and pepper, and cook everything together until flavors combine, about 10 more minutes. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and hot, buttered Sourdough toast.