Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.
I grew up in what was called Darwin’s Addition, one of the first suburban-like settlements in my small hometown in northern Minnesota—so named not after the biologist, but for the developer who built all the split-level housing. In that sense, the neighborhood was not a bit Darwinian, for it didn’t evolve naturally at all but was born out of instantaneous creation.
Bam. Three square blocks of houses for perfect nuclear families. Of course none of us were perfect, but I can you tell this: In 1985, we were all as young as the newly tarred street, the moms were stay-at-home, the dads worked somewhere else, and the leaves of the newly planted oaks shone chartreuse in the hot sun, as bright and vulnerable as forced bulbs. We, the kids of Seventh Street, roved in a massive pack from house to house—unchecked, unaccounted-for, and peripheral to the adults—with a sense of freedom that now seems straight out of a fairy tale.
To break the flow of endless summer days, the moms got together monthly to play cards. Potluck was called. On this particular occasion, my mom hosted, and to keep things simple, she assigned to each of her friends their signature dish: Judy brought seven-layer salad, a fallen layer cake of mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce, and bacon. Candy came with a plastic gallon ice cream bucket full of milky macaroni salad, studded with tiny cubed gems of bell pepper and celery. Didi, not as much of a cook, brought the potato chips and the butter mints. I don’t remember who brought the bars; the scotcheroos and lemon squares were so ubiquitous they might have sprouted on the counter all by themselves, like volunteer squash in a compost pile.
My mom made the hot beef sandwiches for which she, Karen Thielen, was justly known, shredded beef served with enough juice to soak through the cotton middle of a hard roll down to its brown crust. She began with an electric roaster full of beef chuck roast and added seasonings pulled from the steak-au-jus tradition: Worcestershire sauce, soy, onions.
Years later, when I asked her for the recipe, I was surprised to hear her say “Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix,” for she was always a from-scratch cook, an early defender of whole ingredients. I’ve spent most of my adult life taking pride in the fact that she raised us on these primary sources: garden vegetables, marbled meat, beans cooked from a dry state. I do remember a certain soup-mix sound cue, though: a dry, maraca-shake of onions rattling in a paper packet. And even though I’m not much for cooking with boxed seasoning mixes, there’s no denying that the fakey onion mix conspired with the metallic red meat to make a shredded beef so strong and so saline—so electric—it tasted almost dangerous. As secrets go, hers was pretty open, as the recipe was printed on the back of the box. In fact, Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix, poured freely into everything from soup to nuts to sour cream, was as common as green grass. It was every Midwestern mom’s concealed weapon.
At the card lunches, the women played dealer’s choice, a rotation of seven-card stud, blackjack, and something they called “Polish Poker.” The casino games were a good fit for my mom’s transgressive streak. Certainly no prude about gambling, she also got a thrill out of breaking the minor rules. She’d pour toxic cleaners down the bathroom sink. She was blind to water usage, leaving the hose gushing on a tree all evening long. I remember once passing my empty candy wrapper up to her from the back seat while she was driving and watching her crack the window to let the suction pull it right out, its fluttery paper wings bouncing off my back window. I whiplashed to follow it, transfixed. I knew littering was wrong (because she’d told me so), and yet she had just done it. These small deviances of hers ran like mercury through my veins, raising the temperature of my devotion. They were proof of her secret cool.
In a lot of ways, the boxed spice mixes, like Lipton’s, were a part of the early wave of feminism, a shortcut embraced by women who were just beginning to put a price on their time. Even though this group of stay-at-home moms had time to cook, the processed food industry foreshadowed their future, and in a wider sense, womens’ entry into the workforce. Soon enough, the children would reach adolescence, aging the women out of their mothering jobs, and some of them—my mom included—would go back to college to finish their degrees. Some would even break the biggest taboo of all and get divorced, and in that regard, my mom would be the first. But for now, while my parents were still together, Karen’s nascent independence was just a spark of fun, radical energy. It’s my hunch that among many of the stay-at-home moms of the '80s, a similar mixture of conformity and dissatisfaction brewed beneath these placid waters, surfacing once in a while in the small things, like the serving of unwashed fruit.
Unlike today, the afternoon meetups my mom held for her neighborhood friends weren’t called playdates (that the kids would play was a given). They were called “getting together for coffee,” even if the beverages were more happy hour–ish in nature. The domains of moms and kids were strictly segregated, in fact encouraged by the split-level architecture of the era: The women sat upstairs, and the kids were to remain downstairs behind the wobbly gate erected at the top of the steps. When Candy’s youngest came crawling up the stairs crying for her, she automatically ran over to comfort him while the other moms called and teased, “Oh, Candy, you’re just giving him what he wants!” Handing her diapered three-year-old a cookie, she gently told him to go back down with the big kids. Our dog, an aggrieved cockapoo named Buffy, lazily lifted her snotty eyes from her perch on the top step and held her breath until Candy left, then growled at him behind the fence.
Downstairs, the pack of boys ran wild behind a determined alpha. So my friend Tina and I escaped, hopped the gate, and went to sit on stools behind the women at the big table. I perched at Didi’s elbow. The only childless one of the group, she was infinitely patient with 10-year-old me, letting me play with the gold clasp on her cigarette case and stack her chips into high, precarious towers. Didi had skinny wrists, a black caplet of well-swept hair, and exotic slivered-almond eyes, barely ajar. She spoke slowly, as if Southern—which technically she was, being from Iowa. Didi and her husband lived in a short yellow rambler down the block, one of those houses that blooms fancifully in the child mind, as if warped by the shimmering summer heat. It had white carpet throughout and a huge smoky gray glass dining table with a curious abstract sculpture in the center. A piece of art. Tina and I thought she must be rich.
My mom was not winning. Didi was quietly raking in another big pot for me to stack. My mom rose and asked the table, “What do you say? I think we should feed these kids.”
The chain around the table broken, the women hiked back their chairs and began calling for their kids. My brothers stomped up from the basement, their sweaty hair frosted into high meringue peaks, sensing food, confirming my mother’s hunch.
Following my mom’s direction, I helped her set out the lunch. Our movements were smoothly choreographed, our actions combined to form the soundtrack of potluck. I sawed slits in the dollar buns and dumped the potato chips into a bowl. She lifted the Crock-Pot lid and unleashed the beef’s trapped humors. Steeped all day long in onion soup mix, the beef unfurled a flag of scent that hung in the air-conditioned air, thick and minerally like the tang of freshly welded metal. She flipped over clods of shredded beef with a fork to bring the wet, juicy meat to the top, as if turning hay.
“Serving fork,” she said, and I complied, opening the silverware drawer, impaling the prongs into the beef for easy self-service. She uncracked the lid from the top of the macaroni salad, whose creamy surface was covered with sliced black olives—unblinking, round eyes. (They were either naively optimistic or intently questioning, depending on how you looked at them.) I speared the hot dogs from the boiling water—because of course there were hot dogs, the little kids subsisted on them—and dropped them into a bowl. My mom whirled around from the fridge and clunked the ketchup and mustard on the counter to the beat, one then two.
And then, suddenly: Buffy let out a series of savage, staccato yaps. There was a hard knock at the door, which startled us because most of the neighborhood was already here. And besides, we didn’t really knock-and-pause. We mostly knocked and opened.
My mom stepped over the child gate and crept dramatically down the steps, turning to shoot us a look of amused mock-shock. “It’s the sheriff,” she stage-whispered, and opened the door.
“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”
He stepped into the room, a middle-aged guy with wide tan thighs. “Hi there, Karen. I’m coming to investigate a report of an unregistered handgun here.”
Our group of fifteen stood quietly at the landing, as if watching a play.
My mom’s face fell serious. “My husband, Teddy, I know he does have a gun, in the bedroom, I guess for intruders. I can show it to you?”
This was the first I’d ever heard of a gun. I looked at Tina. Her round dark eyes sparkled with a look that said, Ooh, your dad’s in trou-ble!
“I should do that,” said the sheriff, walking solemnly behind her up the steps. “How’s it going, ladies,” he said, nodding to Judy. “What are you doing over here?”
Tina’s mom, Judy (nicknamed “Jude,” which the ladies sometimes modified to “Dude”), stood fiercely on the top step at 5-foot-1. Eight kids in tow, she wasn’t intimidated by much. “We’re just having lunch. Would you like a hot beef sandwich?”
“No, no, thanks, I ate already,” he said, rubbing his generous belly. He looked over at the table, strewn with quarters and ashtrays. “Looks like there’s maybe some illegal gambling going on over here, though. Are you girls playing poker?”
My mom, never one to hedge, told him it was just blackjack, which she didn’t really consider gambling.
Sheriff: “You’re playing with real money then.”
Judy: “Larry, we’re playing for quarters.”
Sherriff: “Still, I hate to tell you this, ladies, but I’m going to have to take you down to the station for illegal gambling. Better bring the kids, too.”
Some of the small kids began to cry, and the women pulled them up to their hips. Tina and I stood, our jaws hung open like drawers. So we were all in trouble.
Just then, we saw my dad’s face in the front door window. Larry rolled his head under his hat, trying to hide the crack of his smile. Just in time. He’d been having a hard time keeping this up.
My mom guessed the gag and let out a tremendous, musical screech. “WAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” she hooted, all one high note. It broke the tension but re-spooked the dog, who erupted in a fresh seizure of barking. Standing in the middle of the room, she clutched her hands to her knees and squatted from the hips. It looked like she had to pee, but I knew that she was just getting ready to flip out (in a good way). “Jesus H. Ch-ristopher!” she yelled, shaking her curls in delight. “You a-holes!”
My dad bounded up the stairs. He was so delighted with himself, his mouth swollen with mirth. My mom ran up to him, into his arms, and threw a few soft punches on his back. He swung her around.
“What the heck, Teddy?” Judy said, but she was laughing, too.
“Good one, Teddy,” said Candy, patting him on the back.
When the commotion subsided, my mom went to the middle of the room, stomped her foot out to the side, held her arms out straight, and said in a loud voice, “Now! WHO wants a hot beef sandwich? Larry,” she tilted her head at the sheriff, “are you really full or was that a lie, too?”
“That was a lie,” he said, plopping his wide hat on the table. “Sure, I’ll take one. And a beer if you’ve got one.”
I remember this as the day that subversion—real deviance, not my mom’s poker-party practice version—landed in my very own living room. It had been tolerated. It had been comic. We had survived it. From that day forward, though, the conventions would not hold. The neighborhood women would change, the men would change, the way they communicated would change, and my parents would split—all of it for the better. The women in this small town of mine would go to work outside of the house, just like the dads, leaving no one at home to prank.
The outlaws of Seventh Street long since disbanded, my mom today would not want to live in a house with a gun, nor would I ever think I’d be writing a story about one. But through it all, the hot beef sandwich recipe remains the same, more or less. My attempt at omitting the Lipton’s resulted in failure: bland, low-contrast clods of beef. Reinstating the soup packet, I then added a couple of modern flourishes that I feared would be treasonous—until I tasted them and knew that they added rather than detracted (and only after Karen Thielen gave me her blessing). Neither she nor I cook much with boxes or cans anymore, but the Lipton’s soup mix is a fallen soldier we can’t seem to leave behind. Its flavor is pure and nostalgic. (But really, the junk lives outside real time. As dry as a seed packet, it could survive the Apocalypse.)
After ten minutes of spirited rehashing and playback, the sheriff and my dad and all of the women went down to eat at the table, their laughter subsiding into a peaceful dust that rested on the thick carpet. I heaped my plate with a hot beef sandwich and a high stack of chips—potato, not poker—jumped the fence, and took my plate downstairs to eat with my own tribe.
- 2 medium sweet onions, such as Vidalia
- 2 plum tomatoes
- 5 to 5 1/2 pounds beef chuck roast (chuck eye steaks, boneless short ribs, and chuck steaks work as well)
- 1 packet Lipton brand onion soup mix
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 6 cloves garlic, lightly smashed and peeled
- 4 dried bay leaves
- 2 cups beef stock
- Crusty white buns, for serving
- Bread-and-butter pickles or sliced pickled pepperoncini, for serving (optional)
Does your family have a "secret" recipe? Share your story in the comments below.