Tag Archives: Cincinnati

Foods of Home — Make Some Chili Mac

Mac and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, chili mac–the comfort foods of the midwestern America. Pasta has a surprisingly long history in American cooking.

Macaroni swept London in the 1770s as fashionable young men did the Grand Tour of Italy and brought back macaroni dishes. The craze for Italian, art Italian fashion, and Italian food carried across the Atlantic into the colonies as well.  British satirists had a field day with Italy-crazed young men, calling the wearers of foppish fashions “Macaronis”. A drinking song satirized the stupid Yankee Doodle dolts (as they were seen in England). The American soldiers, the British sang, didn’t know the difference between a feather and fashion.

For a detailed explanation of the phrase, “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni”, see this web site on political satire of the American Revolution period.  Just as Hillary Clinton fans gleefully took the title “Nasty Woman” and Donald Trump fans adopted “Despicables” during the 2016 presidential campaign, the American revolutionaries purloined the English song that mocked them.

Our Love Affair with Pasta Goes Way Back

Meanwhile, American housewives imported macaroni (and other pastas) and found new ways to use them.  Later, Italian immigants opened restaurants where they catered to American tastes and American Italian food strayed from the original. Mrs. Beeton‘s wonderfully thorough household guide, published in 1860, explains the differece between various pastas, the wheat used to make the best pasta, and gives numeous recipes for using pasta–in soup, in macaroni with Parmesan cheese, and in macaroni puddings. According to Paul Freedma in Ten Restaurants that Changed America, macaroni was a mainstay on restaurant menus throughout the 19th century.  Even the classiest New York Society hang-outs offered macaroni and cheese.

Chili Mac and Johnny Marzetti

Although I have been able to document the absolute origin of Chili Mac, most sources seem to think it came from Cincinnati, where the famous cinnamon-flavored chili is served on spaghetti to this day.  But there is that little nagging problem of “Why is it alled Chili MAC if it is really Chili GHETTI?” The chili part is never in question. Originally, it probably depended on canned Hormel chili, a cheap and quick way to get a filling meal into a family. As you will see in my recipe, I eschew the old familiar canned stuff and strike out on my own. Cincinnati or not, there is no doubt in my mind that Chili Mac is a typical middle western dish, as is Johnny Marzetti.

Marzetti's Restaurant

Marzetti’s Restaurant Coumbus, Ohio, home of Johnny Marzetti

Johnny Marzetti is easier to trace. Marzetti’s restaurant in Columbus Ohio near the Ohio State University campus mixed noodles with canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, ground beef and cheese and baked the mixture. (That link takes you to the original recipe).  Ms. Marzetti the restaurant’s owner, named the dish for her brother Johnny.  She popularized the comfort food in the 1920s, right when my mother was attending Ohio State University. No wonder Johnny Marzetti became a staple on our dinner table.  The nutrituous, make-ahead casserole, also starred on school lunch menus (all that government donated cheese!) and still shows up on Midwestern potluck tables. Every cook may have a different recipe–my sister and I differ on the kind of noodles to use–I prefer flat noodles for Johnny Marzetti and when I use macaroni the dish becomes chili mac.

I suspect that although both variations of noodles-beef-tomatoes may have originated early in the 20th century, they both got a big boost because of the Great Depression.

Chili Mac soothes and fills the empty tummy on a chilly MidWestern winter day. It is inexpensive, easy on the cook and a perfect comfort food.

Chili Mac

Serves 12
Prep time 20 minutes
Cook time 25 minutes
Total time 45 minutes
Allergy Wheat
Meal type Main Dish
Misc Child Friendly, Freezable, Pre-preparable, Serve Hot
Region American
Comfort food form the mid-west, Chili Mac makes an easy economical and filling meal.


  • 1/2 bag Macaroni (uncooked)
  • 1/2lb ground beef
  • 1 bell pepper (diced)
  • 1 stalk celery (diced)
  • 1 can beans (kidney beans or black beans, seasoned or unseasoned)
  • 8oz canned corn (optional)
  • 1 can tomatoes (diced)
  • chili powder or hot sauce (to taste (I use Cholula hot sauce))
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • garlic salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro (chopped)
  • 1/2-1 cup grated parmesan/romano cheese


  • 1 onion (chopped)
  • 1 can kchopped Hatch green chilis


1. Cook macaroni according to package directions, drain and set aside. (Under cook slightly since the noodles will be cooking for a short time in the sauce.)
2. Meanwhile, saute the bell pepper and celery and onion in a large skillet, using a small amount of olive oil.
3. Add ground beef, crumbled, to the vegetables in the skillet and cook until browned. Pour off grease if accumulated.
4. Add the canned beans, tomatoes and corn (if using) to the browned hamburger and stir in the seasonings. Stir in the macaroni. Taste and correct seasonings if needed.
5. Sprinkle cheese on top and put a lid on, turning stove down to low. Leave until cheese is melted into the rest. This dish will hold until everyone gets to the table, and can be served diretly from the skillet.
6. If you do not have a very large skillet that will hold all these ingredients, put the cooked macaroni in a casserole dish and then stir in the cooked hamburger and other ingredients. Add cheese on top, and put in 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes--until cheese is melted in.


Feel free to adapt and use what you have on hand. This recipe is abundantly flexible.

Erasmus Letter #2–“In a bad humor” at Camp Dennison

Camp Dennison

Camp Dennison Old Guard House as it looks today. Photo by William J. Bechmann III, Cincinnati, OH

Nothing more but am truly yours until death. E. Anderson  

As we read through the letters from Erasmus, we learn about his personality. The man reflected in these letters is not much given to sentimentality. The only feelings he freely expresses, it seems, are negative ones.  So although I’m telling you about this letter on Valentine’s Day, and he is writing to his wife, Suzi, do not expect a love letter.

In his first letter, which started, “Dear Suzi”,  the closest he comes to warmth is

“Don’t be uneasy about me and try and take care of yourself and them two little boys till I can get back to help you.”

In letter two, we find that the new recruits have left the cushy life in Washington Park in Cincinnati and are in Camp Dennison, just north of Cincinnati at a place called New Germany.

Camp Dennison

Camp Dennison, Cincinnati, as pictured in Harper’s Weekly

It is October 7, 1862 when he starts his letter with sarcasm.

Well old lady in rather a bad humor.  I set down to send you my thanks for not writing.  I have looked strong for a letter every day but every day as the mailman come I was disappointed which made no more sure of getting one the next day but when the usual old disappointment come today I felt too wrathy to hold in any longer.

Well! That is quite a scolding for Suzi. Then he starts issuing orders.  Perhaps this man in his thirties, who has been his own boss on his own farm is beginning to chafe at having to follow orders all day. Particularly, since he does not appear to be the sort who would not question things, It only takes one cent to mail him a newspaper,he says, so he wants her to send them. He has heard some local boys have been drafted and wants to know who. He doesn’t want  the Pittsburgh paper, he specifies,–

 It is only our county paper I care anything about.  I think when you can you had better mail your letters in Millersburg, for I believe they mostly lay in Oxford [former name of Killbuck] three or four days.

Through with micromanaging for the moment, he goes back to complaining. He has only had two letters from his wife and Albert has none for a long time. He also mentions in this letter that Albert has been sick with mumps and fever but is getting better. (We will hear more about Albert, who Erasmus says now wants to be furloughed.)

You must bear in mind I have more letters to write than you have. Besides I have some to write for other fellows that can’t write and I can’t help it.

Ahh, that reminds us that many of the Civil War soldiers were illiterate, and Erasmus ability to read and write give him some extra chores, if not respect.

Civil War Regimental Flag

Civil War 16th OVI Regimental Flag

Turning to his immediate surroundings, he says they are looking for the 16th O.V.I. to march in soon.  This is the contingent that enlisted at the beginning of the war, which includes men from Holmes County–many that he knows.

They have made one of the most toilsome and hazardous marches ever made during the war and who is well and who is with them is more than I can tell but when I see them I expect to see a poor lot of ragged dirty worn down soldiers.  Poor fellows they have seen hard service by marching if not by fighting and now they are just where they started one year ago.

From a website that carries a wealth of information about the 16th O.V.I., Erasmus’ expectations are confirmed.

I would like to pause here and introduce a source I will be using as we continue to read E’s letters.  In 1881 and 1882, the Holmes County Republican published a series of dispatches called “Camp and Field”. They were written 20 years after the war by Cpl. Theodore D. Wolbach of Company E (the company that Erasmus joined), and cover the troops official and unofficial activities from the beginning in 1861 until they were mustered out in 1864. 

Wolbach’s description of the 16th’s fight and retreat from the Cumberland Gap back north across the Ohio River shows what a grueling journey it was. The troops marched on 1/4 rations and left behind anything that might slow them down. “earth our bed and sky our covering. Lice, of which we had an abundance…”  In August  nearly all of his company ( a company started out at about 100 men) had been captured by the rebels, but after a couple of weeks they were released and escorted back to their lines.

They were constantly harried by the Southern forces. Sometimes the sick were left behind to be taken prisoner rather than endure torture by jolting rides over rough roads. On September 18, the order came to retreat north. But no sooner had they crossed the Ohio, and caught their breath, than they were on their way back to the Kanawha Valley in Kentucky for more fighting. In his next letter, we learn that Erasmus and the new recruits marched five days  down to meet the “old 16” rather than seeing them in Camp Dennison as he was expecting. The military grapevine is active, but not always accurate.

Surprisingly, Erasmus tells his wife not to send food, because they have all they need and “we know how to enjoy it.”  In fact he and Jim and John McCluggage and John Jordan” went out in the country and got half bushel of apples… for 25¢.”  The McCluggage boys, from Holmes County, later transferred from the 16th to the 114th regiment.  John Jordan died in the regimental hospital in Vicksburg the following May.

See Letter One: Cheerful Beginnings

See letter Three HERE

Green Tomato Pie for a Civil War Soldier

In the first letter we have from Civil War soldier Erasmus Anderson, he effuses about the food served by the women of Cincinnati when he is stationed there. I have tried to imagine what those ladies in Cincinnati were serving the Union Soldiers, and decided Green Tomato Pie might be on the menu.

Green tomato pie

It is easy to understand why they were so friendly and cooperative in Cincinnati. The city sits on the northern side of the Ohio River, which was looked upon as the last big barrier for escaping slaves. The Underground Railroad was active there, and although there were dissenters,  most citizens were united behind the Union.

Unlike the residents of the South, where the first year of the war had already decimated food supplies, Cincinnati was well connected by railroad and river to trade to the East and North.  And the state of Ohio continued to produce ample food during the Civil War. Here is what I can surmise about the food that might have been available when Erasmus was stationed there.

German Influence: Cincinnati itself was heavily populated with Germans , so the food would have been German-influenced. Camp Dennison, where the recruits were trained, (Letter two) was actually a bit north of Cincinnati in a town called New Germany.

Ham and Cheese: Two commodities always available, and always on the plate at any gathering in the German areas of Ohio. The soldiers could have been served up thick slices of ham on home made bread. Sausage and kraut would have been on the menu, too.

Beer: The city had numerous breweries, so the soldiers were not going without beer.

September Harvest Time: Farmers would be getting in the last of their crops, and housewives would be pulling off the plants and out of the ground the last of their summer garden. It is sweet corn and sweet red tomato time in Ohio in early September.This is where the green tomatoes come in. The growers must get them off the vines before the first frost comes.

Canning Time: Because of the surfeit of vegetables and fruit, canning would be in full swing, and the soldiers could have been treated to some newly canned peaches or piccalilli or strawberry jam.

Had the soldiers been able to foresee the limited diet they had ahead of them, they might have taken more advantage of fresh produce.  At any rate, we know that Erasmus enjoyed the food and hospitality of the ladies of Cincinnati. And we speculate that green tomato pie might have been among the treats they served.

Some people say that green tomato pie tastes like a tart apple pie. Perhaps, but to me it more closely resembles the sweet and sour combination of rhubarb pie, so I made it the way I make rhubarb pie, with tapioca.  Even people who start out skeptical, wind up loving this pie. (See the Perfect Pie Crust recipe here.)

Green Tomato Pie

Serves 8
Cook time 1 hour
Allergy Wheat
Meal type Dessert
Misc Freezable, Pre-preparable


  • 4 cups green tomatoes (thinly sliced)
  • 3/8 cups Minute tapioca
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • Pastry for double-crust pie (See recipe for Perfect Pie Crust)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (cut in bits)


1. Combine tapioca and sugar and seasonings. After cutting out hard core of tomato, slice thinly. Cut slices in quarters. Add tomato slices and vinegar to sugar mixture. Toss.
2. Line bottom of 9" pie plate with pastry. Add filling and dot with butter. Top with crust with vent slits or lattice top. Brush crust with milk and sprinkle a spoonful of sugar over top.
3. Put the pie in the oven on a cookie sheet to catch any overflow. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour
4. Partially cool, then put in refrigerator to chill before cutting.


The filling will be runny, which is why you put it in the refrigerator. You could pour off some of the liquid after mixing the tomatoes and sugar, but lose some flavor.