Chef Boyardee and Spaghetti a la Aunt Lillian

I found a great food history blog recently whose recent post caught my eye. The blog is Eat Me Daily and the post is on the history of Chef Boyardee products. I’m no fan of Chef Boyardee and even as a kid growing up didn’t like the stuff. It’s kind of interesting what we ate at our house. You see, my Dad was sort of in the food business. His company designed and produced the labels for canned goods. My father was the print rep and his big clients (that I remember) were Jolly Green Giant and Alpo. Those were two food groups we are a lot of – well, at least our dog Heidi ate the Alpo! Chef Boyardee must not have been a client as I don’t ever remember eating it.

The history of Spaghetti and Meatballs in America is one of cultural changes and adaptations. In Italy, this was an unheard of recipe, but in America it’s now one of our everyday comfort foods. But of course, it wasn’t always found in America either.

Italian immigrants began coming to America in the mid-nineteenth century. With them came their food traditions. However, like many immigrant groups these traditions became altered as they found new food groups to use. What had been special occasion food such as pasta, meat, cheese, sugar and coffee, were now available at a cost that even low wage workers could afford.

Canning of products such as tomatoes increased from the 1860s on. Immigrants began producing their own familiar foods or adapted what they could find. One of the new dishes that was created was Spaghetti and Meatballs made using canned tomatoes and ground  beef Рlow quality beef that butchers disguised by grinding it up.

To read more about how Italian food changed in America you might want to read this informative blog.

So why all this research into Spaghetti?¬† Because I was intrigued to find a recipe in Aunt Lil’s cook book for just that. It is by far the most “exotic” recipe in her cook book. Let’s remember, Aunt Lil was a typical New England housewife living in the small coastal town of Kittery, Maine.

Her recipe has the cryptic note at the end – “Sherman Newton.” While I can’t be 100% positive, I believe this is the Sherman Newton who owned the Kearsarge Hotel in Portsmouth (just over the water from Kittery). He began his career as a fish dealer and also worked in the Custom House, which may be how they knew him. (Uncle Charles worked at the Portsmouth Naval Yard).

Anyway, I was intrigued enough to finally make the sauce. Mind you, I didn’t have high hopes for it. Here’s the recipe:

Italian Spaghetti

  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 3 kernels (cloves) of garlic
  • 1 Spanish onion
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 large piece of butter
  • 1 dessertspoon of sugar
  • red pepper to taste

Cook the spaghetti in boiling water until tender

Cook tomatoes with garlic, onion, green pepper chopped fine

Cook slowly for one hour

Then add butter and sugar, along with red pepper

Pour over spaghetti and set for 1/2 hour before serving

I did modify this somewhat. First I sauteed the garlic (which I chopped) with the onion and green pepper. I also had some celery so I cut it up and added it along with one bay leaf. And I didn’t wait 1/2 hour after pouring the sauce on the spaghetti. Not sure what that would have done except given us cold spaghetti.

Surprisingly both Dan and I really liked the taste of the sauce! I was particularly surprised that they added red pepper to the sauce which gave it some bite.

While researching this, I also delved into my 1928 Fannie Farmer Cook Book. There you can find a host of pasta-type dishes including Macaroni a l’Italienne (calls for wine!), Macaroni Italian Style, Macaroni a la Milanaise, Italian Spaghetti, Napoli Spaghetti and even Ravioli. If I want to get real daring, however, I should try her Baked Macaroni with Peanut Butter……



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