I did not intend to turn this into a food blog. There are a myriad of those on the web. They all follow a typical form, a dissertation at the beginning and then the nitty-gritty for producing the delectable proffered. But did you know that this format is driven by the way recipe pages are treated by Google? If that beginning dialogue is not present, the mindless AI of the search engines dismisses the page far down the list. You can then only find it if you have the patience to plod through several thousand links.
Again, I do not blog about food or recipes but this one time a recipe tells a story both about times past and present. It began not long ago when indulging in a bit of nostalgia; I recalled a recipe my mother used occasionally. It is simple thing as you will see and I had tried it years ago in my college days and had even committed it to paper. Alas, that paper was long gone and my memory of the dish was not quite complete.
My mother was an excellent cook and, at least in my memory, nothing bad ever came out of her kitchen. She was not an innovator, though. Instead, she and my father often clipped recipes to try, from magazines and the newspaper. The result was an endless parade of interesting dishes of considerable variety. Some of these would make it into her regular collection and the one she called “ragout” was one of these.
When I began to think about this recipe, I had the intention of recreating it. Google searches for ragout, however, turned up dishes that resembled this not at all. I began to lose all hope that I might find even a slightly similar recipe so I turned my problem over to my daughter. You must know that she has inherited her grandmother’s talent (and you will discover just how much if you view her blog, www.mostly-greek.com.) It turned out that she had inherited much of my mother’s recipe collection as well. As soon as I had inquired, she came back to me with a copy of the actual recipe, something called “Student’s Ragout”. My father* had recorded it noting that it was from The Mystery Chef’s Own Cook Book as published by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (Some light is shed on this here http://ruthreichl.com/2016/02/and-now-a-word-from-the-mystery-chef.html/)
It seemed unlikely that PG & E would publish a cookbook and web searches quickly established two things. First, the recipe is easily found of you search for Students Ragout. There are plenty of versions to be had, all closely resembling this one. The second is that The Mystery Chef was popular radio chef in the 1930’s and 40’s. His story is worth revisiting.
John MacPherson was a Scotsman who came to America in 1906. He had owned an advertising agency in London and came here looking for American clients. He decided to stay to learn American business methods. His father decided that he needed a lesson in thrift and would only send him two pounds (probably about $10) a week. He was thus forced to take a room in a boarding house but soon decided that the food was terrible and moved out with another fellow and started cooking their meals.
Once on that path, he began to develop a talent and soon meals at his table were in demand. Ultimately, it lead to him pitching the idea of a radio show to a potential sponsor in 1931. The result was a widely popular show that ran until 1945. The Mystery Chef title came about, he said, because he wanted to save his mother from embarrassment at the thought of her son in the kitchen.
Now my mother never had a problem with her son in the kitchen. Though I did not cook regularly, she was of the persuasion that her children should be able to fend for themselves and at least be able to boil water and maybe fry an egg now and then. Though I am no special talent in the kitchen, I have held that interest ever since.
There is no knowing how much nostalgia MacPherson may have had for the old country. The range of recipes in his cook books gives no clue either. He never returned to England in any case, or at least not permanently, instead staying in the US until his death in 1962. (Here is the best link I have found about him https://blogs.loc.gov/now-see-hear/2020/05/the-mystery-chef/)
Though I can’t say that MacPherson ever became nostalgic for home, I find myself in that state of mind more often of late. The Student’s Ragout was just one of the things that came to mind. In the spirit of the Mystery Chef, perhaps, baked beans were a frequent treat. MacPherson made a specialty of budget recipes because his show aired during the Great Depression. As he noted in an interview, he once provided a week’s worth of recipes costing just $1.48. This was possible because
“chopped meat cost 19 cents a pound, butter was 27 cents a pound, eggs were 17 cents a dozen, flour was 6 cents a pound, sugar was 23 cents for 5 pounds, pork chops could be had for 5 cents each, breast of lamb was 25 cents for three pounds, and ground coffee sold for 19 cents a pound.”
His thrifty ideas would have had great appeal to my parents, having lived through those difficult depression years.
While our meals were often thrifty, what was not missing was the sense of family, especially at breakfast on Saturday mornings. The food was plentiful no matter what with eggs, bacon or sausage, waffles, pancakes and more. But it was that family togetherness that I most remember and that I miss the most. That is what we have lost in this last year of isolation and quarantine. Now that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel perhaps some of that will be recovered and we can be families once again.
As I have noted, you can find numerous versions of Student’s Ragout on the web. Here is a shortened version of the Mystery Chef’s Own…
4 medium sized potatoes
2 medium sized carrots
3 medium sized onions
1 lb. round steak
½ lb. sliced bacon (Canadian style)
Salt and pepper
1 cup cold water
The potatoes and carrots should be peeled and thinly sliced. Peel and slice the onions. Cut the steak in 2 inch x ½ inch strips across the grain. The bacon can be cut to fit the pan.
Use a pot with a tight fitting lid. Place the bacon to cover the bottom. Arrange the steak in a layer on top of the bacon. Sprinkle with pepper. (Be generous as this will make all the difference.) Place the onions in a layer on that and then the carrots. Add salt and more pepper. Finally, place the potatoes on top and sprinkle with salt and pepper again.
Put the pot on the stove and turn the burner to medium high. Cook for about three minutes until the bacon begins to sizzle. Add the water (or wine if you prefer) and cover the pot. Turn the heat to low and cook for about 45 minutes. Serves four.
It should be noted that this recipe does not scale well. It is also not a budget item anymore, especially as the price of meat, even round steak, is not cheap. But this can produce a delicious one-pot meal that is easy to prepare. Done once, you will never quite forget how to do it again. I hope you enjoy, and when you do, raise a glass to John MacPherson, the Mystery Chef! *
The recipe was written in my father’s handwriting, easily recognized as he wrote in an easily recognized hasty scrawl, which is ironic considering that he was sign painter and was quite expert at letering with brush and paint.