When I told my wife I was writing a piece on a recipe that always reminds me of my family, her reaction was: “Oh, chicken and dumplings!”
Yes, the logical choice. It is a lifelong favorite meal, something my mother always knocked out of the park. It practically screams comfort, and warmth, and family.
And it ain’t the winner, kids. It’s a solid, but distant second place. Why? Because it’s a civilized meal, for well-behaved children around a perfectly set table in a picture-book house with manicured lawns and finely trimmed shrubs.
According to my baby brother Bill, that wasn’t our household.
“We raised ourselves,” he said on a long car ride last year. “Mom was always sick. Dad worked. We were feral.”
I thought that a bit harsh, but he asked me what I remembered about our meals.
“Well, we had roasts, meatloaf, spaghetti, chicken and dumplings, and our favorite: Ritty Dum Ditty.”
“When did we have each of those things?”
“No, nimrod. There was a rhythm to those meals.”
I was stumped.
“You’re supposed to be the smart one,” he sighed. “Let me refresh your memory: we had roasts or chicken the first week of the month. The next week, meatloaf, Salisbury steak, burgers if we were lucky. After that week, spaghetti with meat sauce. Maybe boxed macaroni and cheese. Cheap, filling food. The last week of the month it was anything goes if it was cheap and didn’t cut into Dad’s Stegmaier budget. Maybe we’d get a pizza, but more likely Wally would break out the canned chow mein with dry noodles. Maybe some Mr. Chef-freaking-Boyardee canned ravioli. You remember those big cans of ravioli? Feral family size. And on the last day of the month, the big treat…”
“Ritty Dum Ditty,” I said, my mouth watering at the memory.
“That was the unchanging rhythm. Every month it was the same because Wally only got paid once a month. By the time we got to the RDD, Wally was digging through couch cushions for loose change.”
“Ritty dum ditty,” I sighed again as I remember our hands-down feral child favorite.
“Yeah it was great. It also fit all of Wally’s key criteria: Filling. Cheap. It took about ten minutes to make and was damned near impossible to screw up, even after making a dent in a six-pack of Steg.”
So what is this miracle meal, food fit for the feral and kings alike? The concoction that brought tears of joy to five wild children?
Without further ado here is the recipe for the end-of-month favorite from my childhood, and I’m channeling my Dad’s voice, the undisputed master of RDD:
Wally’s Ritty Dum Ditty (Week 4 meal)
1 big-ass can or 2 small cans of condensed tomato soup.
1 block of sharp cheddar cheese, cut in thick slices. (How old is that cheese? Cut off anything green and continue.)
Mustard. Whatever kind you have in the fridge (if you don’t see it, it might be hiding behind that jar of relish no one has touched in five or six years). Shake mustard well, it probably hasn’t been used since week #2.
Seasoning. Oregano, or anything that sounds vaguely Italian in origin. Scrounge the spice drawer. Don’t check use-by dates. The cooking heat will kill anything growing in there that isn’t actual spice.
Saltines. Fresh if you got’em. Otherwise, finish the box started when you made last month’s batch.
Empty soup into a large sauce pan. Make sure you get all the soup. Scrape the lids, sides and bottom. The thickest bits of congealed tomato soup are there, and that’s where the flavor is.
Warm over medium heat until it bubbles lightly. If the pan is spitting soup at you, damn it cut the heat down. Stop heating everything on high just because you’re impatient.
Add the cheese and stir until it has melted.
Squeeze in the mustard. (Did you shake the damned bottle? No? That’s why all you have coming out is mustard water, idiot.) There is no set amount to use. Just keep adding it until the soup has changed from deep red to a burnt orange. (Note: If you’re still on high heat, you’ve also burnt the soup. Toss everything and start over.)
Stir in a teaspoon of the dried oregano (or whatever the hell it is) and heat thoroughly. Reduce heat to simmer. Have a Steg.
Arrange saltines on the dinner plates. For little ones, make a smiley face. For anyone over six, who cares? Are you going to eat your dinner or play with it?
Ladle the thick sauce over the beds of saltines.
That’s it. You’re done. Eat. Enjoy. Put the empty plates in the sink. Don’t leave them on the table, or the dog will lick them clean and someone will put them back in the cupboard like last month.
Did you turn off the damned stove?
Have another Steg.
After regaling my wife with stories over the years of this mystical miracle meal, I decided to make it for my family a while back. It was well-received, though not with the same enthusiasm it got from feral children. Maybe I should have downed a few Stegs while cooking it for authentic atmosphere and to create a sense of nostalgia and ambiance
(Note: When Mom was healthy, there were no feral children allowed in the house. Proper, thrifty meals were made. But we still got our Ritty Dum Ditty.)
…be good to each other.