Monday, February 21, 2011


I never cease to be fascinated with how the mind works. At 2:20 on Sunday afternoon, I realized I had to have a blog for Monday, and that I had neither written one nor had a pre-written "extra" I could use. I had settled on doing another blog consisting of choice opening lines of spam messages, which pour like Niagara Falls into my Spam bin every single day. But while I'd just done one not too long ago, I decided to go with it, and started thinking of an introductory paragraph. The word "goulash" suddenly popped into my mind, and instantly I switched from doing a piece on spam to doing one on goulash. (They are, after all, both types of food.)

And thoughts of goulash immediately took me back to my childhood, when goulash was a frequent meal, and frequently served (in my household, at least) when guests came over for dinner. America was just emerging from the Great Depression, and times and money were still tough. In 1938, the year I turned five, the average annual wage in the United States was $1,750.00. I don't know that my father made that much as a manager-training instructor for the Western Tire Auto Company. My mom didn't work at the time...I'd just recovered from a badly broken leg which required her full-time attention, and I was a pretty high-maintenance kid at best.

Goulash, just in case you don't know, is an extraordinarily flexible and nourishing dish. It is most usually made of beef (Mom used hamburger because it was cheaper), onions, any other vegetables you have on hand, spices--primarily paprika powder, without which goulash is not goulash--and pre-cooked elbow macaroni. It originated in Czechoslovakia, where the word means "mishmash," and depending on how it's made it can be considered a soup or a stew.

The minimum wage was reset by the government in 1938 at twenty-five cents an hour. Hamburger cost less than 20 cents a pound.

My folks, still under 30 in 1938, had lots of friends, all of whom were in the same financial boat as they. They'd get together often, and social gatherings then consisted mainly of just friends sitting around talking, or playing games. I don't remember that beer, wine, or alcohol played as much a part of social life as it does today. And very frequently, friends would just stop by, unannounced. If it was near dinner time, or if they stayed until dinner time, Mom would make a large batch of goulash. If there was any left over, we'd have it for dinner the next night. And if someone else showed up while she was cooking, it was easy to just add a little more water, or toss in more cooked macaroni, or more vegetables, or whatever happened to be around.

My family was, I'm sure, what was considered "lower middle class," but I was completely unaware of it. To a child, whatever conditions you're used to are, simply, the way is. Goulash was to me what prime rib or filet mignon or lobster tails was to those more wealthy. You don't miss what you don't know exists. I was largely unaware of the financial pressures my parents were under, or the sacrifices they made for me. And I've told before, with considerable shame, the story of the time my parents had to take the money from my piggy bank to buy something they did not have enough of their own money to cover. You have no idea how I wish I could have them back, even for an hour, to tell them how much I appreciate what they did for me.

I'd love a bowl of my mom's goulash right about now, and to hear the talk and laughter of friends long gone. But that's all right: all I have to do is close my eyes and open my heart, and they're here.

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Hyena said...

Hmmm... Two things:
1. Goulash is not a Czech nor Slovak original food. It was born in Hungary.
2. Although Czechs and Slovak do use the term "goulash" as "mishmash", it was the food that gave its name to the term, not the other way round. :-) The exact etymology is not clear but usually it is said tha name "goulash" comes from an Old Hungarian word for the "herd (of cows)".

Knitrageous said...

We had goulash too. It's a comfort food. But no paprika (West Texas tradition maybe). Sometimes my mom would put chili powder in it and call it chili-roni. For a change sometime we'd have corny goulash, which was just hamburger meat and corn, no macaroni.

My kids didn't and still don't like goulash. They don't know what they've missed!