Everyone that’s worn a uniform knows Chili-Mac is the best MRE in the military, but you might be surprised to know that its history dates all the way back to the turn of the 20th century.
Soft, floury elbow noodles smothered in tomato sauce and ground beef goodness. It’s an entree that has graced American tables for over a century. While a childhood mainstay for many of us whose mothers’ idea of gourmet cooking was informed by casserole culture and Hamburger Helper recipe books, it is perhaps a dish most popular among U.S. service members.
Added to the Meals-Ready-to-Eat menu in 1995, this staple has developed something of a cult following over the years. But where, you might wonder, did it originate?
In 1914, goulash entered the annals of American cuisine, believed to be a slum-food whose origins lie in Hungary.
Early military iterations of the meat-and-sauce-over-pasta-dish go as far back as 1916, under the moniker of “American Chop Suey” — a bastardization of a Chinese dish that typically consists of rice, meat, vegetables and a thick cornstarch sauce. In that year, the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks featured a dish called Chop Suey Stew. The 1932 Navy cookbook also featured a version of the soupy delight.
As the years passed, the dish changed. The original recipe was desired for its cheapness and flexibility, and it could be made simply with elbow macaroni, onions and beef and a hearty tomato sauce. But the rest is up to the chef. In addition to including any vegetables you can muster, the mac can also be served instead over ziti, rigatoni or bowtie pasta.
There is also a rumor that the dish as we know it entered the zeitgeist when a small restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, served a casserole that put chili-mac on the map.
Italian immigrant Teresa Marzetti purportedly opened a series of restaurants between 1919 and 1940, with the third and final one landing on Broad Street. One of her most prized dishes, which was named for Marzetti’s brother-in-law, became known as a pasta dish called “Johnny Marzetti.”
Others, however, believe chili-mac is tied to Cincinnati Chili, which, while also originating in Ohio, has its roots not in Italy, but Greece. Slavic-Macedonian brothers, John and Tom Kiradjieff, immigrated to Ohio in 1921 and began selling a hotdog topper called saltsa kima. A greek bolognese sauce, the saltsa kima became the basis for what would eventually be dumped over pasta to create Cincinatti Chili.
There’s no doubt that Cincinnati’s dish is what put chili on the map, not Johnny Marzetti. But other states have tried to lay claim to the stewed topping, including Texas and California.
However, the proof is in the menu as to where the moniker for everyone’s most beloved MRE derived: The Kirajleff’s restaurant, the Empress, began serving chili on top of spaghetti, calling it “chili mac” in 1922, according to Dann Woellert, author of “The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili.”
The rest is delicious, beefy, pocket-heatable history.