S.O.S. stands for “Chipped Beef” (…except the word is actually Shit) on a Shingle. If you are over 50 you already know this and if you are under 50 you probably wouldn’t give a “chipped beef” if I said “chipped beef” in this post. This is my Papaw Virgil’s recipe. It goes against practically every healthful instinct you might have. Papaw Virgil was a baker and an inventor and a smoker and he loved Budweiser Beer. So this post is not about healthy food, it is about chipped beef and bread and love and memories, and the fact that some of my dearest memories smell of dried beef, canned oysters, Budweiser, axle grease, smoke, sawdust, exhaust, and coffee. If the notion of jarred beef makes you queasy, you are excused. I can’t help it that you didn’t have a Papaw Virgil to teach you about the finer things in life. Just know that I’ll try really hard not to make gagging noises the next time you eat goose liver pate if you won’t make gagging noises at my jar of dried meat. Loosen up. Just buy it, peel off the label and celebrate the darling star lined juice jar you just got with your purchase.
My Papaw (who I shared with 14 other lucky cousins) was a large, strong handsome man. He was the Superintendent at Mead’s Fine Bread in Wichita Falls, Texas when he was younger. When he was older, he was the grandpa who wore those one piece coveralls, and watched the comings and goings of a large and jovial family while he did neat things like make duck decoy weights out of beer cans and cement or welded together a trailer (and I mean from scratch).
Memories are so generational. I know my aunts and uncles would say, no, that Virgil was that handsome young man in pressed pants and a linen shirt who swept Katie off her feet and ran the bakery. My cousins and I knew the old man who had a fishing lure that was a tiny plastic can of Budweiser with treble hooks and the most impressive metal workshop known to mankind. It is fair to say we all loved him more than words are capable of expressing. In our own ages and moments we all had very different relationships with him, but each of us adored him.
A family that large requires frugality. You don’t get that many kids through private schools and college on the salary of a bakery super and a secretary without knowing how to turn lemons into lemonade, if you know what I mean. This is one of those basic, filling meals that is made from pantry staples, left over bread and one little jar of meat. It is a throwback recipe to fine military dining. This was basic troop fare. It was also a regular on my childhood menu, as my mother carried on her father’s tradition. If you like biscuits and gravy, you will probably like this.
I’ve had that jar of meat in my pantry for months waiting for the moment that I could prepare this and savor my memories as well as the meal. I baked several loaves of French Bread a few days ago and ended up with an uneaten loaf. It was entering its days of use limited to toast, croutons, and bread pudding. The notion of my grandfather’s S.O.S. with bread I had made was integral to the enjoyment for me, since I’m pretty sure that Mead’s closed down before I was even born. He would have been pleased that I had made my own bread for this.
So, if you have similar memories, and you have a place in your belly for military style or depression era food, try this someday. It has also, historically, been made with browned hamburger meat. I believe that it was also a pretty popular diner item in years past. But I have never run across it on a menu. That might be a geographic issue. It is hot, creamy and delicious. By the way, you can’t really dress this up. Using good bread was about the only innovation that stayed close enough to the original. I had thoughts of dolling it up and even made a version with mushrooms and tenderloin and it wasn’t as good as this humble little jar of beef. This is as it should be. It is shit on a shingle. I’ve copied the ingredients from Papaw’s recipe verbatim and made notes where necessary.
4 Tablspoons butter (use unsalted, because the salt adds up in this recipe)
4 Tablespoons all purpose flour
2 speck pepper (just a bit)
1 teaspoon salt (I used ½ teaspoon…the meat is very salty)
2 dash paprika
2 cups milk (or milk and a little cream…I used ¼ cup cream with 1-¾ cups 2% milk)
1 jar Hormel dried beef (or Armour)
A loaf of Mead’s Fine Bread (5 to 6 slices of bread, toasted)
In a heavy saucepan over very low heat, melt the butter. Add the flour, pepper, salt and paprika. Stir constantly until blended and smooth.
Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened.
Meanwhile, open the jar of meat. Rinse and drain the meat in the jar with warm water. Do this 3 or 4 times to remove excess salt and to soften the meat. Drain the meat and lay it on a paper towel to absorb the excess moisture. Cut the meat into strips. Stir the meat into the cream sauce and just barely reheat it. Adjust the seasoning. Serve the cream sauce over toasted bread.
Notes: First, the can of Budweiser in the photo is my little prop. I set up the photo and looked at the situation and was sad that there was a lack of character in this white bread photo. I looked in the fridge, and lo and behold, there was one single Budweiser. I took it as a sign from Papaw that he was well pleased with my homemade bread and smooth cream sauce. He would have been irritated that I kept moving to the camera to snap photos when I should have been “stirring constantly.” But he would have been happy that he is such a significant part of my childhood memories.
Second, the book shown to the right is a family cookbook that my extended family built a few years ago. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins contributed favorite recipes and sent me note cards containing old recipes from our grandparents, great grandparents and great aunts and uncles. It was entirely worth the time. I love my little book and I use it all of the time. I encourage you to talk to your families about the foods that were a part of your upbringing. Food is a huge part of culture and it tells a considerable story. For instance, you can probably surmise from this recipe that my family has some military background and that my grandparents were not wealthy. It shows that my grandfather cooked. It gives a sense of time and place. These are memories that are faint for me and memories of which my own children were not a part. But they will get a sense of their origins through the foods I cook for them and the recipes that I pass down to them. Talking about your own family’s food culture will be an enriching experience. And, since you asked, the title of the cookbook is the title of a song that Virgil used to sing to Katie: “K-K-K-Katie, beautiful Katie, you’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore…And when the m-m-m-moon shines over the c-c-c-cow shed, I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.”
Third, I say “chipped beef” rather a lot in real life. But my editor (my mother) does not. I care what my mother thinks, so I limit my outbursts of profanity here. This is a family blog. And, after all, caring what one’s mother thinks is the key to staying out of jail, right? That is how the world is supposed to operate. Plus, are you not a little curious as to what the Google-bots will put up as ads if I use profanity? Have you noticed that they seem sometimes to be tracking you a little too closely? Google puts up ads here based on what Google thinks you might be likely to click. When you click an ad, Google makes money and I make a one-zillionth of a penny. That is how this blog generates income. So if I’m talking about “chipped beef” and you are reading about “chipped beef,” Google might assume that you will be interested in products about “chipped beef” and we might end up with some rather unsavory looking ads next to a perfectly lovely food photo.