My husband James and I were an “internet romance” back in the days when chatrooms were the norm and the concept of internet dating was new, unknown, and sent my elderly relatives into a tizzy because they were sure the whole thing just spelled doom and gloom.
James’ Mom was nearing the end of her battle with bladder cancer not long after we met and he did not tell her about our blossoming romance “for fear of jinxing it” in his own words (something he regretted later knowing then how pleased his mother would have been with our romance and subsequent marriage.)
Born and raised in a small town outside Boston, James and I learned we had enough in common to quickly bond with each other but enough differences to keep things interesting. One of the shared traits was our taste in food. It was not a difficult task to turn James into an honorary “Dutchie” who quickly embraced the plethora of Coal Region and PA Dutch favorites that I had grown up with.
Sadly, two weeks before James and I met in person for the first time, his Mom passed away. James. his sister, and her husband were planning on scattering Grace’s ashes at one of her favorite places on earth — an inlet off First Connecticut Lake in Pittsburg, NH just a few miles from the Canadian border,
James asked me to join them. Excited to see New England for the first time yet apprehensive about meeting his family and acutely aware of the reason for the trip and his recent loss, i had a severe case of butterflies in my stomach.
I need not have worried. James’ sister and brother-in-law embraced me with open arms. As we prepared to make the final leg of the journey from their home outside Concord, NH to our lakeside log cabin accomodations in Pittsburg, James’ sister announced she had made a pan of “chop suey” to be heated for dinner that evening. James’ face lit up and I thought to myself, “Oh, this must be great!”
As we settled in at the cabin nestled among soaring toothpick straight pines with the brilliant foliage of autumn in the north country reflecting off the gently lapping waves along the shoreline, I took a deep breath. I was feeling at ease with the people around me and truly awed by the beauty in front of me. Now, I was about to sit down and experience a meal consisting of something this Coalcracker had never tried before – chop suey!
As I snuggled up to James in front of a crackling fire, I kept sniffing the air. Funny, I expected to catch a whiff of something exotic; something unknown. Instead, I kept sensing something familiar. I brushed it off. As the casserole dish was removed from the oven, chairs scraped on pine flooring and beverages were served. James sister peeled back the aluminum foil covering the dish.
Staring back at me were crumbles of hamburger with elbow macaroni peeking through tomato sauce…good old Coal region goulash! I tried not to laugh but it was a struggle. As everyone noticed my frozen state and strange expression, I passed it off as “being a little overwhelmed” with the weekend.
As I watched the others dig in and start chatting, I realized that although hundreds of miles from what I considered “home”, part of it — although under a different moniker — had followed me to that quiet cabin in the woods where I embraced the knowledge that I had found my true love and had been gifted with a new family. It was one of the most peaceful and profound moments of my life.
Just about two years later, James and I got married at that same cabin on a gorgeous 75F degree day in late September. Because of the spectacular weather, we moved the ceremony and our small gathering of guests down to the water’s edge. As we took our vows, I glanced over James’ shoulder to catch sight of some “wedding crashers” — two men in a small motor boat who had taken a break from fishing to come in close to shore to see what was happening. We often laughed about that through the years.
As the gentle breeze blew and we held hands and promised to love and cherish each other ’til death do us part”, that actual time never crossed our minds. The concept was unthinkable; we would grow old together and hold hands as we rocked in our chairs on our porch in our retirement years. Life had a different plan for us. A very different plan…
Throughout my years in New England, I found that the region shared some dishes with their neighbors to the south, including some PA Dutch and Coal Region foods like whoopie pies. This classic dish featured here was a favorite of my husband, James, and is often known in the Coal Region as “goulash” or “Johnny Marzetti”, but is fondly known as “American Chop Suey” in New England. It can be found on many diner menus and in the ready-to-heat sections of supermarket delis.
James often asked for this dish and I would make a big foil casserole of it and he would enjoy it for days. It can be served freshly made or refrigerated and reheated.
This is my version and the one James enjoyed the best. It contains no cheese. Cheese it up if that is how you’d like it. Different cooks alter this in different ways — there is no “right” way. This one is so “you”, James. I miss you so much.
American Chop Suey (aka Coal Region Goulash or Johnny Marzetti)Course: EntreeCuisine: New England, Coal Region, PA DutchDifficulty: Easy
2 tablespoons oil or butter
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
1 pound lean ground beef
2 teaspoons garlic herb seasoning
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with juice, undrained
1 (14.5-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup ketchup
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon white sugar
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and bell pepper and saute until soft, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ground beef using a spoon or spatula to break up large pieces. Fry beef until no longer pink. Add remaining ingredients EXCEPT MACARONI into the pot; stir to mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions. Drain well. Stir the hot macaroni into the meat mixture in the pot and blend well. Heat through, serve.