Credit: George Danby

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Todd R. Nelson of Penobscot is a retired educator. Benny, Robert C. Nelson, had an international career in journalism when he wasn’t in the kitchen.

The precise recipe for the famed goulash is lost in the mists of time, culinary mythology, and family lore. Nonetheless, memories simmer; a few facts surface, beginning with biographical antecedents.

Benny grew up on Spam. Raised in Depression-era Buffalo, he knew well the myriad uses of which Spam was capable. Some are born loving Spam; some achieve a taste for Spam; some have Spam thrust upon them. Even late into adulthood he savored a good fried Spam sandwich. His children, however, never enjoyed his palate, hard as he tried to cajole them into appreciation. Spam was therefore thrust upon them.

The question is: Why did Benny, unlike so many men in his generation, find pleasure in the domestic culinary arts? He was more than the customary backyard grill master. He liked a multi-layered composition, like a good paragraph, not just the paleo-throwback to the campfire and roasted meat. He liked to open the cupboards and concoct. He was a kitchen improv kind of guy — open to a fresh, spontaneous turn of phrase, writer that he was. Syntax is everything.

Soups were his forte. Ham and split pea. Potato leek. Beef stew. Minestrone. Zuppe de Tonawanda, on a Saturday afternoon. I can still recall, years later, watching his meticulous prep work, the precision of his knife moves slicing and dicing, the neat piles of carrots, zucchini, and onions on the cutting board awaiting the pot. Succinct. As when Benny ate artichoke, arranging all the leaves in a tight circle around the edge of the plate. Not many cooks are so fastidious. Orderly. Then a slow simmer and timing the addition of each ingredient for cooking efficiency and maximum flavor. He tasted and tested and would finally sit down with a hearty bowl of his soup of the day, sprinkle a little parmesan cheese (store-bought, canned), and enjoy his work.

Sauce Bolognese was another favorite. When he fetched the big stock pot, he intended to recreate the house marinara from Fanny’s in Evanston, Illinois — “the gravy,” as they might have said. This was fine dining to Benny, the apotheosis of gourmet at the time. It was still early in his travels. He would eventually see the world, refining his tastes. He never, however, relinquished Spam.  

Grilling arrived eventually. Benny liked a good marinade and barbecue sauce, though easy on the heat. He was not a vinegar-based pit master, and he liked a good char. Perhaps too much, for some customers. Again, it was about slow and low — time and heat. Pre bake the chicken; add liberal amounts of sauce; strategically arrange on the Weber (always the classic kettle, with charcoal, for Benny. Propane? No. Just, no.), and stand by with the tongs watching and waiting. It’s funny how quickly the brown sugar in sauce will caramelize if you’re not paying attention — if, say, you get into conversation on the deck with the company and ignore the grill for a few minutes.

Benny never wrote down his sauce ingredients. This too was improv and happenstance, never store-bought. Different every time. And he was venturing further and further from his Buffalo roots. It could be as humble as a little ketchup with mustard and sweetener; soy sauce; perhaps orange juice — who knows. It was red. His sauce was the proverbial “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

However, it’s the franchise classic that remains at the heart of his oeuvre: Benny’s Goulash. The fact that he made goulash is less significant than the fact that he named it after himself. Thank goodness it did not include Spam.

Picture canned tomatoes, diced onions, perhaps a few green peppers, lean beef, medium macaroni pasta, and tomato sauce. Topped with the parmesan, of course. Its first service was only the beginning — the dish was always prepared in quantity — and only improved as a leftover for subsequent meals. His regular diners never knew goulash was anything but Benny’s. For all they knew, goulash was a term Benny invented.

Benny’s father, Bob, was a baker. He would regularly make brownies and cookies for the office coffee break pool. That interest seems to have skipped a generation. Baking required recipes, making them akin to accountancy. Little room for deviation. Even when Benny did acquire a soup cookbook, he eschewed all but a recipe’s broad brushstrokes. It was inspiration more than schematics. Independence.

I miss Benny. Sometimes it’s the minute details, secreted in the corner of the portrait, that reveal the texture of a life. Benny was an alias, I eventually learned, a nickname, a term of endearment from early married life. To me, he was, in fact, just Dad. And top chef.