What is it about ground beef and tomatoes that warms the heart as well as the appetite on a cold winter’s day? Looking for seasonal favorites it seems that winter nearly begs for those ground beef dishes that were staples at the weeknight dinner table when I was growing up. My family ate Stuffed Peppers, Kentucky Chili, and Meatloaf regularly. Each recipe stretched hamburger to feed a hungry family on a tight budget.
Ground beef dishes were among my favorites as a child, a fact not missed by my dearest relatives. Each had their own versions of ground beef specialties and they would make my favorites when I came to visit.
Aunt Hen would often make my favorite Porcupine Meatballs when I walked up to her house for supper. At my grandma’s house it was what she called “Barbecue.” Others might call it Sloppy Joes. She made it on the thin side and spooned it over toasted hamburger buns.
I loved the way the tomatoey gravy of my grandma’s barbecue soaked into the toasted bread. I ate it with a knife and fork and loved every bite, a fact I shared with anyone in the family who listened to my food preferences. At my house it was known as “Mammaw’s Barbecue” but when Mammaw wrote out the recipe for my sister-in-law many years later, it was titled “Mama Jean’s Barbecue.”
Mama Jean (middle) circa 1940
I had watched Mammaw stir the tomatoey meat mixture studded with celery and peppers in her big cast iron skillet many times but I never thought to ask her about its origins. In my mind it was her recipe and yet the recipe card she wrote out attributed it to Mama Jean, my great-grandmother.
Where Mama Jean got it we can never know. She died a few year’s before I was born, walking to work at the lunchroom of Mill Creek Elementary School in Louisville where she had managed the lunch room for over 30 years. She had worked there since the lunch room was first opened in 1925, the year after my great grandfather died of pneumonia leaving Mama Jean with three young children to raise on her own.
It was a tribute to her determination and her ability to stretch a dollar that she kept her family, as well as the student body at Mill Creek School, fed through the lean years that followed. What she knew about cooking on a budget might have filled volumes rather than the few pages I managed to scrape together for my Family Cookbook. Still, true to family tradition, I will take what I can find and see what I can make of it.
This recipe is simple and easy to make. While there are thousands of Sloppy Joe recipes out there the addition of cloves rather than other spices makes this recipe for Mama Jean’s Barbecue unique. In fact it seems that the small pinch of cloves in this recipe, when simmered down with the flavors of ground beef and tomatoes, is the secret ingredient that can send me back to my early years in an instant. That same ingredient surprised me in the recipe for Kentucky Chili, another favorite recipe from my childhood.
Mama Jean’s Barbecue
1 small onion diced (½ cup)
1 lb. pound beef
½ cup diced green celery
¼ cup diced green pepper
1 teaspoon salt (I use ½ teaspoon)
1 cup tomato puree (10.75 0z. can)
1 heaping tablespoon sugar (I use brown sugar)
1 cup water (I use ½ cup)
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (or a pinch more, depending on freshness)
In a large skillet brown onion slightly. Add hamburger, celery and green pepper and brown slightly.
Next add tomato puree, water and seasonings. Simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the sauce begins to thicken and flavors meld.
Thicken with cornstarch or flour (if desired).
Serve on toasted sandwich buns or over Texas toast.
Notes added to the recipe by my grandmother:
"I find that adding about ½ cup of ketchup just before adding the cornstarch or flour improves the taste.
You can also double or triple this recipe which I do. Then freeze the extra for further use.