I believe food memories are among the most powerful of memories.
They involve so many of our senses; starting with the way food looks and smells, and then the way it feels on our tongue and palate as we chew and swallow, and all these combine to form our sense of taste.
One whiff of bread baking in an oven, and I immediately travel back in time to our kitchen as a five-year-old and my mom baking.
The smell and taste of hamburger fried rice — I am again sent back to my childhood. This time I am eating dinner at our babysitter’s house across the street. The recipe is from a cookbook of collected recipes from teachers and P.T.A. mother’s from our school.
I fill my plate and eat until I am stuffed, our babysitter — known to us as “Auntie Myrt” tells me to clean my plate as I push the plate back with a little food left as my stomach legitimately feels full.
Her husband — “Uncle Art” — says, “Don’t make the boy eat it all. If he’s full, he’s full, and can’t eat anymore. It’s not look like he didn’t like it, did you see the way he was eating?”
And it’s not just childhood memories, chicken enchiladas recall my first date with my wife, Jenine.
One of my favorite comfort foods comes from my years as a Boy Scout camper and then a staff member at a Boy Scout summer camp in northwest Washington state.
Just 20 miles from downtown Olympia nestled in the Black Hills on the shore of Summit Lake is Camp Thunderbird.
I spent a week there as a camper for three years when I was 12, 13 and 14. I then worked there every summer from 15 to 34, with two summers off while I was out of the country.
We ate in the dining hall. Food was prepared for us by the camp cook and kitchen staff.
We sat in the dining hall at tables of eight people. The food came out of the kitchen hot and served in large bowls for each table. The food was politely passed around the table in family style.
Each scout at the table took a daly turn at being the “waiter.” The waiter arrived thirty minutes before the meal, took the benches down, set the table, and brought the food to the table. The waiter stayed after the meal to return the serving dishes to the kitchen, scrape food off the plates and bowls, and then clear and wash the table and sweep the floor.
One of my favorite meals for dinner at camp was “Jamboree Mulligan.”
The only place I ate this was at camp. As a staff member I got to eat it once a week, with leftovers on weekends.
At that time I had never heard of it before and I have never had something called “Jamboree Mulligan” or anything that tasted exactly like it served to me anywhere else. Not even to this day.
I always assumed it was something unique to my Scout camp.
At 15, I worked as a counselor-in-training. I was there for two or three weeks, rotating each day to work in a different area in the camp. I got to eat Jamboree Mulligan several times that year.
The next year, I worked in the kitchen for the summer. I was the Dining Hall Steward. I trained and supervised the waiters in their duties and worked with the cook, Alice, to prepare the meals.
Alice was diminutive in stature. I can’t remember how tall she was, maybe a little over five feet. Her husband, Marv, the camp ranger, made a wooden stool for her that was about six or eight inches high. She stood on the stool in front of the stove so she could reach to stir our largest pots.
Alice was short in height, but a great cook. She once cooked at the restaurant in the Golden Carriage Motel, a popular spot in its day, in downtown Olympia in the shadow of the capitol building.
The exciting thing about that summer was I got to watch her make Jamboree Mulligan. Browned ground beef, some onion, tomato of some kind, and macaroni noodles.
I worked in the kitchen with Alice for three years. Each year she made the Jamboree Mulligan slightly different.
The first year we had some left over institutional spaghetti seasoning that she added to the pot. But she must have put other stuff in there, because it never tasted like spaghetti.
One year I saw her add just a pinch of chili powder to the pot along with Italian seasoning, but not too much, because it never tasted like Chili Mac.
One year we had a cook that added too much Chili seasoning to it and it was Chili Mac, not Jamboree Mulligan.
Jamboree Mulligan was a Camp Thunderbird tradition. It remained on the menu for at least 22 years. Who knows how long it was served before I started attending camp and how long it was served after I moved away.
I asked Alice where she got the recipe. She told me some Scouts came back from a national Jamboree one year. They had Jamboree Mulligan at the jamboree and liked it, so they passed on the recipe to her.
Years later, when I was working at Camp Thunderbird, I worked as the program director for the Boy Scout Summer Camp and then as the cook for the Webelos Camp after Boy Scout camp season ended.
I tried to make Jamboree Mulligan — it was close, but not quite the same.
About five years ago, for some reason, I tried to make Jamboree Mulligan at home. I wanted that old Camp Thunderbird meal.
I tried and tried, but I couldn’t quite get the same taste.
I called my brother. He is four years older than me. We worked at Camp Thunderbird together for around 20 years. His first job, like me, was in the kitchen as Dining Hall Steward.
He reminded me that the tomato in Jamboree Mulligan was Campbell’s Tomato Soup, not tomato sauce.
I tried tomato soup, and yes it has to be Campbell’s, and that made the difference.
My attempt at recreating Jamboree Mulligan now had an authentic taste, but still not perfect, but close enough — because like I said, Alice made it different each time.
Now, if you’re thinking isn’t Jamboree Mulligan, just American goulash, beefaroni, slumgullion, hobo stew or some other concoction — you’re wrong. I have Googled and tried those recipes and they aren’t Jamboree Mulligan.
I did find on Google two stories and recipes that tie Jamboree Mulligan to the 1950 and 1957 Scout jamborees. Each had a simple similar recipe — ground beef, onion, tomato soup and macaroni noodle.
And then I struck gold; I found Jamboree Patrol Menu #6 in the 1953 February edition of the Boys’ Life magazine.
At jamborees each patrol picks up their food from the commissary. Along with the food they get a menu with recipes to tell them how to prepare the meals.
To prepare Jamboree Mulligan for ten people, the 1953 jamboree menu said to use two “boiling fires.”
On one you boil four quarts of salted water and cook one pound of macaroni noodles by boiling “briskly for ten minutes.” The menu cautions not to over cook the pasta.
One pound of onions are to be sliced “up fine,” and then fried until light brown in two tablespoons of shortening in a pot over the other fire.
Two and one-half pounds of ground beef are then broken up and added to the pot. When the meat is slightly browned, the recipe calls for adding three cans of tomato soup — I’m sure it was Campbell’s. Was there anything else in 1953? — and one cup of water.
The only seasoning mentioned is one teaspoon of sugar and one-quarter teaspoon of salt.
The mixture is simmered for 10 minutes before the noodles are stirred in before serving.
The menu includes cabbage slaw, made with coarse grated cabbage dressed with a mixture of vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.
Served with bread and butter, the meal is completed with canned pineapple chunks and boxed cookies for dessert.
I guess Alice “kicked it up a notch,” with whatever spices she had on hand, long before Emeril Lagasse made that phrase popular.
I sent a text to my brother before I wrote this column. He inherited Alice’s recipe cards.
Until I discovered them in the kitchen long after Alice retired as our cook, I didn’t know Alice had recipe cards. I never saw her use them.
Apparently at some point she wrote down her recipes from memory on cards and gave them to one of her successor cooks at Camp Thunderbird.
I saw the card for Jamboree Mulligan. I don’t recall what it said, I just remember thinking “That’s not how she made it.”
I asked my brother if he could find Alice’s Jamboree Mulligan recipe. I was curious what she had written down.
He said he would have to do some digging. I didn’t want to trouble him. I have the same problem with boxes in my garage.
And anyway, he said, “I was different each week, depending on what was in the fridge.”
He also recalled the same old leftover dry spaghetti mix that I remembered.
So, I will be content with my replication of Jamboree Mulligan. When I eat it my mind goes back to my summers on the shore of Summit Lake eating in the dining hall with a large fireplace and the dull roar of 100 Scouts eating and talking.
Hey, if you try the Jamboree Mulligan recipe and like it, send me an email and I’ll send you the recipe for my mom’s meatball stew. It was one of my favorites. She taught me how to cook it so I could make it for our patrol for a camporee. I think it won us a blue ribbon.