Who these days hasn’t thrown up their hands an hour before dinnertime and said, “I give up — WHATEVER!”?
Whether it’s because of supply chain issues, cooking fatigue or just straight-up fatigue, throwing in the towel has never been more tempting. It’s made “Chopped” contestants of all of us as we blearily survey refrigerator stragglers and pantry randos, wondering what we can throw together.
Here’s a secret, though: Ain’t no shame in a zany dinner game.
For many, some of the best and most memorable meals have come from parental desperation. Wacky, weird combinations that may not be objectively good become nostalgically great. Random ingredients turn into family recipes or traditions, recalled with fondness and relished with reminiscences.
It’s not the fancy stuff that folks turn to when things are hard. From dollar dishes of desperation to international ingredients that recall roots, we asked people on Facebook to share their most memorable meals, and here’s what they remember most.
Noodles, Margarine And Hot Dogs
Every culture has its own set of inexpensive, easy-to-throw together ingredients that fill bellies in a pinch for pennies. But rice, noodles, eggs and hot dogs are held dearly in many a heart across America and used in countless combinations influenced by geography, culture and availability.
I remember days when my mom was so tired, she’d boil nests of thin Chinese dried egg noodles in water and douse them in sugar that would dissolve in the sweet “broth” I’d slurp up. I loved it. In fact, that past tense is already inaccurate; as an adult, I sometimes lie to myself, telling myself I’m too tired to cook a proper dinner. The truth is, sometimes, I just want sugared noodles in sugar “soup.”
And I’m not alone.
The chorus of adults who feign fatigue to cop an excuse to make nutritionally deficient, minimally prepared dishes is loud enough to be deafening. My best friend and her sister indulge in what they call “naughty bowls” comprising a box of pasta and “entirely too much butter.”
Kelly Abramson in South Carolina cherishes “grandma spaghetti,” a last-ditch brainchild from her German grandmother and another two-ingredient toss so beloved, she and her sister would ask for it specifically. “It’s just plain spaghetti noodles with a can of whole peeled tomatoes cut up. The next day, it becomes ‘fried spaghetti,’ when the noodles get heated back up with margarine.”
Now, as a busy and expectant mom, “it’s one of my favorite lazy go-tos,” she said, especially for her toddler.
“As an adult, I sometimes lie to myself, telling myself I’m too tired to cook a proper dinner. The truth is, sometimes, I just want sugared noodles in sugar 'soup.'”
Crackers are also a recurring two-ingredient carb source, specifically the Ritz brand. Atlantan Ariel Baverman is at least the third generation in her family to turn them into a much less-cooked version of matzo brie, happily making her father’s Ritz and soft-boiled egg bowl. “The salt and the sweet buttery taste from the crackers are really all the seasoning you need,” she said.
Then there are hot dogs, a distinctly American low-effort add-in. Long Islander Eric Shapiro still loves his mom’s “frank and beans casserole.”
“It’s sliced hot dogs, a couple cans of baked beans, and a can of crushed pineapple … it was quite the delicacy,” he joked, and one he’s trying to pass down. “I tried this family recipe out on my kids to no avail … but I will absolutely be making it again and again until they finally like it!”
Andrea Marchese Quatrale volunteers her brother’s memories of sharing Campbell’s Meatball Alphabet Soup with sliced hot dogs over boil-in-a-bag rice with their dad. “I’d left for college and mom was not only working full-time but getting her master’s degree, too, so they often had dinner together.”
Dishes With Deeper Ties To Our Roots
Last-ditch dishes can also serve as important ties to our heritage. Dana Baasiri-Matthew may call Miami home, but her Arabic roots come through in her comfort food.
“For sweet cravings, my mom would chop up a banana for me and drizzle condensed milk over it,” she said. Another family staple was “a makeshift pizza with the French bread we always kept on hand, ketchup instead of tomato sauce, a dash of za’atar, and slices of kashkaval cheese.”
Baasiri-Matthew, an expectant mother, said that while she awaited the newest member of her household, she craved the nostalgia of the dishes her mom admitted to “making up as we went along.”
To feel closer to her mother in Lebanon and her maternal grandmother who lived with them growing up, she’s led her husband on wild goose chases for ingredients like that Eastern European-style cheese. “I have very vivid memories of standing with them in the kitchen as they whipped it up and stuck it in this old-school toaster oven we had. I remember leaning over the counter and watching the cheese melt.”
Lillia Charles-Hakoupian’s Middle Eastern roots emerge in a much simpler way: by mixing white basmati rice with plain yogurt, something her mother used to do for her. “This is still one of my faves, honestly! Both are big staples. My mom would sometimes make her own yogurt with leftover or expired milk,” which made it extra special, but “nice, thick Greek yogurt” is how she serves it to her own family now.
Coming from a Cantonese family, Saleena Chiu’s mom had a different take on easy rice. In her family, they’d take thin-sliced, simply seasoned flank steak and set it atop rice that was nearly but not fully cooked, letting it steam up together. While it’s a “top-secret family recipe; I can’t find anything else like it,” she says, she’s made the recipe her own by using ground beef.
Other alterations have included adding more wonderful memories to her association with this after-school meal. “It was one of the first dishes I made for my now-husband,” she shares. “And while it’s a comfort food for me, for my husband, who never cooked before, it’s a simple dish he can make which gives him a sense of pride” and share with their young son.
Dishes that cure what ails us
The placebo effect is far from limited to pills. There is healing power in food … especially thrown-together things you willingly ate when you were a child sick in bed. My Sicilian New Yorker ex-husband swore by Chinese take-out wonton soup, and refused to feel better until he had a big bowl of it.
Whenever Kylie Davis fell ill, her mother would make her pasta with butter and ketchup, something she continues to self-medicate with, except now with vegan butter.
And Pennsylvanian Angela Lauria still makes her mother’s beef broth with orzo and grating cheese every time she feels under the weather. “I had COVID back in November and it didn’t matter that I had no sense of taste or smell. That soup was my cure!” she said.
Perhaps it’s the love in it, because Chelsie Boudreaux always appreciated that her mom only ever made her egg and rice dish for her when she was growing up in Louisiana. “I was a picky eater, and if I wasn’t feeling well or had a bad day, it was her go-to, something she knew I’d always enjoy.” Nowadays, “I make it for my partner Sean,” she said, and “absolutely” plans to pass this association down to her newborn.
Eating Your Feelings
We eat to feel good, in every sense, beyond simple nourishment. While some turn to food to forget, others use food to remember. For example, Tracy Tamucci has turned her father’s “signature” breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese and chopped-up hot dogs into a Christmas morning tradition for her family. “We tell our kids and their cousins why we eat it,” she said, and they share stories about their grandpa.
Corinne Smith drums up “magical nostalgia” with what she and her grandpa called “banana cereal.” This was nothing but the fruit cut into whole milk, plus two teaspoons of white sugar.
“It was the ’80s!” she laughed. “We were the only early birds hanging out at the crack of dawn. I tried giving it to the kids recently, and sadly, they didn’t love it.” However, that maybe makes it even more special and exclusive to her grandfather, as she still eats it on quiet, early mornings when she has dairy milk in the house.
Similarly, Barbie Reggio, another busy working mother, also cherishes her memories of time alone with her grandparents. “Everyone in my family is neurodivergent and has their own different food texture quirks,” she confided, saying it makes it a challenge to share food memories. “My Irish grandmother mixed canned corned beef hash, browned and crispy, with elbow noodles and ketchup. It was my favorite meal and I’d often request it on my birthday like it was a treat or something.” Savored in rare moments alone, the last part hasn’t changed.
But dishes don’t have to be eaten in memoriam to bring the souls of loved ones closer together. A meal can span distance as much as time. Joe Faust’s cousin called him the other day just to share that she’d made a Wonder bread and Hellmann’s mayonnaise sandwich just because she was thinking of him. Emma Daval and her cousins feel closer to each other every time they make her grandmother’s hamburger noodles.
“That meal and the people I ate it with are inextricably linked,” she reflected. “Each bite brings back memories of carefree summers and holiday weekends. Luckily, my family is still quite connected, but my grandmother doesn’t cook much anymore, so the nostalgia factor definitely plays a role in the deliciousness of the dish.”
So while some are out there hand-chopping mushroom duxelles and rolling dough from scratch for beef Wellington or preparing an artfully arranged charcuterie board, realistically, these are not the efforts that children remember. They are not the dishes they carry with them through the years.
More than likely, it’s the ingenuity, the fortitude, the pulling-it-together in unexpected and therefore memorable ways that they’ll be thankful for. It’s the trying against all odds and exhaustion that adds love to the recipe.
So go ahead — chop up that hot dog. Open those cans. Sugar those noodles. And call it a family recipe in the making.