Bob’s Mom’s Hot Dish

The last year and a half that I spent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I shared an apartment with Bob.  He was from “Trivers” (Two Rivers if you are not from the place).  Bob was working on his doctorate in oncology and I was starting work on my master’s degree.

After several afternoons of riding our bikes on streets near the university, we found an apartment that looked good to us: an older well-kept home on a quiet street just a few minutes from Bob’s lab and Bascom Hall, where I had most of my classes.

There was one problem.  The sign in the window said “Women or couples only.”  It was still legal for landlords to discriminate openly against anyone, but this actually gave us a big advantage.  First, since there were two apartments, chances were good that we would have some girls as neighbors.  Second, we assumed that the landlord, whoever he was, wanted nothing to do with hard drinking vulgar male students.

Over a couple of beers at the Union we devised a strategy.  We had to look respectable and as little like the typical UW-Madison male student as possible.  We outlined talking points in a notebook–the fact that we were graduate students with high grade point averages, both from small towns with strict parents (a stretch, but our parents did try to control us), looking for a really quiet place so we could study without interruption, and that we were leaving university housing because we wanted a place that was neater and cleaner than the dorm rooms maintained by the housekeeping staff.

I’m not sure that we used that last point, since we were afraid that the landlord would think that we were stretching the truth.  A lot of people felt that the head of University Halls had a pair of white gloves that he used to check for dust from time to time after the staff had cleaned the rooms.  We did agree that showers, shaves and neatly combed hair were in order along with white shirts, ties, pressed slacks and polished shoes.

Bob made the call and talked us into an appointment for the following morning.  “Must have gotten his wife,” he said as he gave me the news.  “I hope that he isn’t as suspicious as she was.  She made me spell oncology.”

We decided to arrive on bicycles rather than in Bob’s rather hot Chevy to emphasize the fact that we were serious students.  It was a beautiful morning as we climbed the broad steps and crossed the wide front porch.  The woman who opened the door turned out to be our landlord.  After a grilling not to be repeated until we asked our prospective fathers-in-law permission to marry their daughters, we were accepted as tenants with the understanding that we would keep things clean and neat, not have any wild parties and turn off the lights when we went out.

Unlike most student apartments which made slums look luxurious, our apartment was beautiful, and we did our best to keep it that way.  We even had a fireplace and a little back yard that our landlady invited us to share after a probationary period.  She grew tea roses and told us that we could pick one every week if we wanted.  For two summers we ate at a table with a tea rose in the center.

Since we both liked to eat and cook but were living with severe budget constraints we became pretty good shoppers.  The day the grocery store ads appeared in the newspaper, we would make lists and head out on our trusty bicycles.  We would buy a small quantity of something on sale, take it home and cook it.  If it passed the taste test, back we would go to stock up.  Once we bought a week’s worth of steak for little more than the price of hamburger.

We learned that a glass of red wine makes even ordinary beef taste better and a glass of white does the same for ocean perch or chicken wings.  And we found a liquor store that would give us a case discount even on their sale wines, so every couple of months we would take the car to the store on the far east side of Madison to stock up on whatever we could afford (i.e., the cheapest available).

We both brought recipes from home.  Every couple of weeks Bob would make his mother’s hot dish.  It tastes especially good if you eat it with a glass of red wine while admiring a yellow tea rose on the table.

It is not exactly like his mother made it.  Bob and I made some changes to give it a little more flavor, but I still like it and make it at least once a year for old time’s sake.  Like all macaroni and hamburger recipes, this is an easy and inexpensive way to put a lot of food on the table.


1 lb. hamburger
1 small to medium onion
1 cup dry macaroni
1 tsp. salt
1 can vegetarian vegetable soup
1 can tomato soup
1 can mixed vegetables
1 bay leaf
Dash of cayenne
2 to 3 T tomato catsup
1 T barbecue sauce
1/2 cup grated Colby or medium cheddar cheese
Salt and black pepper to taste


Put about 2 quarts of water on to boil.  When the water is boiling, add 1 tsp. salt.  Wait for the water to start boiling again, then add the dry macaroni and cook until nearly done (about 7 minutes).

While the water is heating, brown the hamburger in a large skillet.  Chop the onion medium and add it to the skillet when the hamburger is close to done.  Turn the heat down and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes.  Drain off the excess fat.  Add the soups and the vegetables.  Do not drain the vegetables.  Put one bay leaf in the mixture.  Add the tomato catsup, barbecue sauce and a dash or two of cayenne.  Drain the macaroni and combine it with the meat mixture in the skillet.  If the mixture seems dry, add a little water.  Cover and simmer 4 to 5 minutes.  Stir well, taste, add salt and pepper if necessary.  Sprinkle the cheese on top and serve.


It is very important that the macaroni be undercooked when you add it to the meat mixture, because it will continue cooking in the skillet.  However, the worst that can happen is that the macaroni becomes a little mushy.  It still tastes good.  Also, you can add a tablespoon or two of red wine instead of water before the final simmer.

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