In another life, perhaps, I might have been a food historian (although I sometimes wonder if there even was such a thing when I was going to school). This is a subject that fascinates me and over the years, I’ve accumulated a bookcase filled with books on the history of food, recipes, food cultures in various parts of the world – (examples of this might be “A Taste of History, 10,000 years of food in Britain” by Maggie Black, or “The Joy of Eating” by Katie Stewart, or “The Food Chronology” by James Trager, or another favorite, “The Delectable Past” by Esther B. Aresty). You get the picture.
And nothing presents a greater challenge than being introduced to an unfamiliar dish or recipe and asking myself “What’s in this dish? How is it made?”
That was my situation in Oregon on the coast one day in September at a place called Moe’s on the pier in Florence. “Slumgullion” was on the menu. I had no idea what Slumgullion was.
“It’s good,” my friend Bev assured me. I took her word for it; we both ordered bowls of slumgullion with a side of garlic cheese bread.
But back home, I couldn’t find slumgullion in my dictionary, or in ANY of my seafood/fish cookbooks, or ANY of my Oregon or Washington cookbooks. I also checked my Florida cookbooks since a lot of seafood recipes originate there. Nada. It was not listed in a favorite reference book called “The Encyclopedia of Cookery”. “The Food Chronology” makes no mention of slumgullion.
All was not lost; Google can usually come to the rescue and there I found a definition “A seafarers term for a meaty and thick stew which contains a little bit of everything” which sounds about right. But then I found a website www.kitchenproject.com/german/recipes/slumgullion) which offers the German Slumgullion and states that “This dish got its name from two words put together, “slum” which was an English word for mud, and “gullion” which was a term that miners used for a pit…the homes were often poor and used any kind of meat (even squirrels and birds) that they could find and any vegetable, bean or starch they had on hand to make enough food to feed the whole family. Similar is the Irish mulligan stew.…” Nowadays, the author claims, the modern slumgullions usually have a combination of any meats or vegetables you might have on hand and maybe a can of tomato or mushroom soup and some noodles. Answers.com defines slumgullion as a watery meat stew.
Then I found a website, www.cooks.com, in which nearly thirty recipes for “slumgullion” are offered, all appearing to start with some onion and ground beef and after THAT I found www.lefoodnews.com in which food writer Gary McCarty writes, “Okay, so I had never heard of slumgullion (an Irish meat and veggie stew-like substance) until I announced yesterday via e-mail that I was whipping together some turkey chili with leftover fowl and whatever chili-like ingredients I could find in the kitchen. A friend then replied via e-mail that he was making turkey slumgullion, which sounded suspiciously akin to the methodology of using whatever was on hand that I employed with my chili. Anyway, I then felt obliged to look up some slumgullion recipes, but none sounded particularly pristine or Irish…” (the ground beef and onion didn’t sound particularly slumgullion-ish to me, either) – but I think it’s fairly safe to say that “slumgullion” in the loosest of definitions is a pot of whatever leftovers you find in the frig and toss together to make a stew or chowder.
My sister Becky used to make a stew out of leftovers that we generally referred to as “Everything but the kitchen sink” stew. Slumgullion wasn’t in our vocabulary.
That being said, the most interesting definition turned up in an issue of http://www.word-detective.com:
Dear Word Detective: My daddy (a poorly educated word-lover) liked to call apparently ordinary beef stew “slum gullion.” I find myself doing so, not knowing what it really means. The “slum” makes it sound like it’s connected to poor people, but what’s a “gullion”? Modern dictionaries I’ve consulted are vague or worse. Help?.
Yes, modern dictionaries are no fun at all, full of dull downers like “origin unknown” and, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it in this case, “probably of fanciful formation.” But “slumgullion” is indeed a well-established word with a long history, today meaning a kind of hash or stew, especially one of humble origins.
The earliest occurrence of “slumgullion” recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” in 1872 (”He poured for us a beverage which he called ‘Slumgullion’”), which Twain used in the then-current sense of “a weak or inferior drink.” In the 1880s, “slumgullion” was apparently also used to mean the watery refuse from processing whale blubber as well as the muddy sludge created by mining operations. The earliest use of the “stew” sense of “slumgullion” yet found dates to 1902 (Jack London, “Daughter of Snows”: “‘What do you happen to call it?’ ‘Slumgullion,’ she responded curtly, and thereafter the meal went on in silence”), and, given the earlier meanings of the word, that must have been seriously nasty stew.
So the root sense of “slumgullion” appears to boil down to “unappetizing liquid concoction,” which probably isn’t fair to all the decent stews it’s been applied to over the years”. (I really dig the Word Detective website).
Now you know the rest of the story. If you are in Florence, Oregon, go to Moe’s and try their hearty, thick, yummy slumgullion stew. It’s neither unappetizing nor watery. The slumgullion at Moe’s resembled and tasted like a clam or fish chowder, with a liberal sprinkling of cooked small shrimp scattered over the top of the soup. Yum!
(originally published in Inky Trail News. Reprinted with permission)