September 16, 2006


family dynamic
I've been feeling lonely and out of touch with the people I love, particularly my family, and I had a craving for the taste of some kind of nostalgic food that reminded me of love, protection, and company.

I saw that the nearest deli to my apartment was stocked with a bag of egg noodles and also a box of 12 prefab hamburger patties. So I added an onion to my purchases and decided to make mushcalanza.

There's not too much to the making of mushcalanza. I knew I could get a little buzz on while I cooked it, so I stopped at Vintage New York and picked up two bottles of port and two bottles of Riesling. No, I wasn't planning to drink all that while cooking. The sexy clerk at Vintage didn't sneer at my taste in supersweet wine, and he was sweet enough himself to explain what ice wine was when I asked.

Back home, I chilled a bottle of Riesling (which is still chilling now 5 days later) and broke open a bottle of white port (Goose Watch, from the Finger Lakes area of New York State) and started cleaning up my tiny kitchen so I could actually cook something in it.

I cook so rarely it's ridiculous. A couple of years ago, ConEd actually sent me a letter asking if I wanted to discontinue my gas service, because apparently I had not turned on the oven or the stove in the last six months. I love to cook, but living alone without room for much company, being single, being lazy, and only having a minifridge with a vestigal, clogged freezer have all really put the kibosh on my impulse toward cooking.

not my mother
The backstory of mushcalanza is crucial to understanding its position in my life as one of my first comfort foods. My mother was around in the evenings 99% of my childhood, and she did all the cooking 80% of the time -- unless we were in a restaurant or visiting family for dinner. Only a handful of times in my entire childhood were my brother and I left in the care of my father as the sole parental figure. This has a lot more to do with my mother's ubiquity rather than being any comment on my father's caretaking skills. In other words, my father took perfectly good care of us, but my mother was just around that often and was in charge of cooking. Because of their infrequency, I remember well my father's turns to cook dinner. What he made was mushcalanza.

Mushcalanza is browned hamburger meat sautéed with onions and then mixed with egg noodles. It's a simple, delicious dish, but I don't know a more accurate name for it. It's not Beef Stroganoff (no sour cream), but that's its closest cousin. I always assumed that my father made up the name to amuse us and figured it was some onomatopoetic label he had invented on the spot. Besides charcoal barbecue in the summer (his barbecued Italian sausage was particularly delicious), and a short fad of baking bread my parents shared with our neighbors, mushcalanza was the only dish I've ever seen my father serve.

why do you weep?
At home, I change clothes, get more casual, take a hit. I unpack my ingredients and rummage through my pots & pans cabinet. My grandmother would start every meal by putting on a pot of tomato sauce, and I feel like I start every cooking session by chopping an onion. The gasses that are released from the onion make my eyes water, but they also clear my sinuses and wake me up and make me hungry. Mmm, the sizzle of onions on a hot pan with olive oil. I hope my neighbors are smelling this and feeling less sorry for me, if they think of me at all.

My spice rack is pathetically limited, but I add garlic salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and oregano to the onion strips. When the onion has browned on its edges and its bodies turn translucent, I add two of the meat patties. The sizzle in the pan gets higher pitched.

Meanwhile, I've halfway filled my spaghetti pot with water and set it to boil with a shake of sea salt.

I chop up the meat patties into chunks with the edge of a wooden spoon and shuffle the frying food like a stir fry, between stirs allowing it to settle for browning and seeping. A juice is forming, oily and thick, and I get a measuring cup filled with water ready to add in a bit. I pour in a splash of white port since it's close at hand, and refill my glass while I'm at it.

that popular?
When the water boils, I shake some Mueller's "wide, hearty" egg noodles into the pot and stir until it swirls again of its own volition. The bag of Mueller's says that it's "America's favorite noodle". Could this be true?

I add too much water to the meat and it starts looking less like sauce and more just soggy. Turning up the heat to boil off some of the excess, I wish I had some thickener like flour or Bisquick in the house to make a real gravy. Whatever -- I'm just going to have to blast the meat and onion mixture until some water boils off. I also wish I had a green pepper or mushrooms to sauté in to the mix, but I don't, and I satisfy myself with the thought that my father always made the most basic version of this, too, and so I was just keeping it classic.

Mmmmatt Damon
Finally the egg noodles are soft enough (I push far past al dente for all pasta) and I strain them and add them to the pan of fried meat. The sauce has thickened nicely and coats the noodles, turning it all a glistening light brown. I made more than one serving and so I empty about half onto my plate and take it to watch the movie The Brothers Grimm. Which isn't a great movie, but not as bad as rumored, either. Just not as good as it could have been.

The mushcalanza was delicious. A little too garlicky -- I should have leaned lighter on the garlic salt, for sure. But still, it filled me and made me feel dreamy and happy and suffused with hazy memories of a time when I ate with my father and brother in the eeriness of my mother's unusual evening absence.

I finished the first portion and ate the entirety of the second serving, too, instead of saving it as I'd originally planned.

The next day at work I was still touched with nostalgia and so I wrote my brothers an email:

I made mushcalanza for myself last night. It was delicious. Is that how you spell it? Dad made that name up entirely.

Rob, my little brother who wasn't even born during my memories of mushcalanza (he's almost 10 years younger), wrote back first:

Haha egg noodles with hamburger meat and onions..whatta weird food

Fred, who's only thirteen months younger than I am, wrote a little later:

Nothing on Google. What if we started It might become the rage in Germany or something. We can get David Hasselhoff to sing our theme song.

"Looking for Mushcalanza"

All of which I found highly amusing and I felt like I'd reached out to my family and felt not quite so alone.

The next morning, Rob sent this email with a forward attached from my father:

From the horse's mouth:

Rob. The actual word is a combination of two Italian words: miscel which means concoction (miscellaneous) and lasagna which are flat strips of wheat pasta. Together that spells miscelasagna. When the boys were small, your mother would boil long egg noodles and combine that with browned beef chuck. She would then pour some brown gravy into the bowl and mix it up. She would also add some diced tomatoes ,if we had any, along with parmesan cheese. The ingredients could vary depending upon what is in the refrigerator. It's fast, simple and goes well with a robust red wine. Gene and Fred loved to say the word but never really got the pronunciation correct so we just generally called it mushcalanza. Your mother would always correct them but it didn't do any good. I believe your Aunt Mary Jo and even BB call it mushcalanza. I'm sure it comes from your great grandmother Rao. Hope this helps.

I find it fascinating that my father didn't remember that he'd cooked this dish alone. I don't ever remember my mother making it, but then she had a full repertoire and it could have been lost in rotation.

Miscelasagna or miscellaneous lasagna don’t come up on Google, either, btw. Just saying.

Right before I wrote this post, I started cooking a meat pie for myself and that's cooling on the counter now so I'm going to go eat it.

Happy mushcalanza to you all.

1 comment:

Daniel, the Guy in the Desert said...

I really enoyed reading this story very much. I want to make some mushkalanza and think of you and your family while downing the third bottle of Riesling.