What Southern Folks Eat - Let me help your hamburger
Cookbook author Michael Pollan wrote in 2006, “never eat anything that your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
When we picture typical convenience foods in the grocery store… things like tubes of slick, fluorescent-colored sweetened yogurt, hockey-puck-like frozen breakfast sandwiches, packaged chemically-preserved snack cakes that never die, and more…we understand how our ancestors might cast a disparaging eye on what we are eating sometimes.
Looking back as far as, say, the 1800s, the kinds of food most people enjoyed were fresh fruits and vegetables grown nearby or perhaps even on their own land; fish caught in local waters, meat from the cows and hogs on one’s own land or the woods, and the like. People enjoyed their food, and they were nourished by it. Obesity was much less an issue, and cancer and heart disease rates were lower than those we live with today.
By the time the 1960s came along, things had really changed on the food landscape. Convenience is what the food industry had begun telling people they needed. There were suddenly frozen tv dinners featuring food that most folks would not call delicious, and macaroni and cheese suddenly came in boxes with envelopes full of orange powdered “cheese,” a weak replacement for the kind from mother’s oven, warm and full of creamy real cheese and topped with bread crumbs. And in 1971, a certain boxed dinner came along with a cheerful cartoon-like glove as its mascot, promising to “help your hamburger make a great meal.” (I think it was supposed to be an oven mitt, but it had several fingers, remember?)
I can remember wishing mom would buy our family those kinds of meals. It looked fun and yummy, and the commercials caught my attention as a little girl. Occasionally mom would buy it and make it, and I did like it. But she wasn’t one who was attached to convenience products most of the time. She made spaghetti sauce from scratch instead of from a jar, for example. She made real fried chicken instead of breaded and frozen chicken strips. Her food was delicious, needless to say! And it helped that she was at home during the day, because she had time to do those things.
A few years ago I was feeling nostalgic and grabbed a box of that packaged pasta dinner, and chose the cheeseburger macaroni flavor to try out. The meal was ok…it just was not as good as I remembered. I could taste the preservatives in the food. The flavor wasn’t as good as my mom’s own from-scratch pastas. Plus, it contained monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is said to contribute to ailments such as migraine headaches, which I sometimes do battle with.
Because I love the memory of the comfort food mom made in the skillet, but wanted it to taste great and not be chemical-infused, I created the following recipe. It’s made with a bag of pasta, tomato sauce, meat and seasonings. Nothing is freeze-dried. Nothing has MSG or preservatives in it. And happily, it comes together in less than 15 minutes, as the pasta cooks right in the sauce! Being in a hurry doesn’t mean you have to resort to eating or serving to your family less than the best. Also, the price for my homemade version is very low; the pasta was one dollar, the tomato sauce was 75 cents. The meat, which you also buy to use in the packaged meal, was just under five dollars for a pound. How great is it to feel six people a generous bowl of pasta for just over a dollar per serving?
I think you’ll love the flavor and the speed at which this comes together, and so will any hungry kiddos you’re feeding! I may not have a big talking white glove, but I’m pretty happy with the way my “make your own Hamburger Helper” recipe turned out.
Skillet pasta-hamburger supper
12 ounce bag large elbow macaroni
15 ounce can tomato sauce
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or two teaspoons if using jarred garlic
1 teaspoon salt
In a large skillet with deep sides (such as a chicken fryer) or a Dutch oven et over medium heat, crumble the ground beef and begin to allow it to brown. Break the meat up into bite-size pieces.
Add chopped onion to the pan while meat is browning, and stir occasionally.
When meat is browned and onion is beginning to become translucent, add the garlic. Stir in.
Add the can of tomato sauce, herbs, and salt. Stir to combine.
Add six cups of water to the skillet, stirring to mix well with sauce. Raise heat to medium-high.
Bring the liquid to a boil; add the dry pasta, and stir frequently as it comes back to a boil. Stirring will present the pasta from sticking to the pan. Add another cup of water, if needed, to ensure all pasta is covered.
When the sauce begins to boil, turn heat down to medium. Maintain a low boil and cook for eight minutes, or until pasta is done to your preference. Taste the sauce and add salt, if needed. If you’d like sauce to thicken more, simmer for another minute.
Serve in pasta bowls, and sprinkle with parmesan, mozzarella, or cheddar cheese. (Or if you’re a cheese lover, have fun and use all three.)
Serve with a salad and garlic bread, and enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she'd love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.