Honky Tonk-ish

When BDN reader Beth Chamberlin read about Cooking Maine Style, the compilation of Marjorie Standish recipes I recently put together for DownEast Books, she wrote me right away to say, “I received my first cookbook when I was in 6th grade from a family friend and it was Cooking Down East,” by Marge Standish. “What a treasure. I have enjoyed using that cookbook along with Keep Cooking the Maine Way,” also by Mrs. Standish. “There are so many good recipes.” Indeed, there are.

Beth uses Mrs. Standish’s Potpourri Soup, along with clam and fish chowder recipes. And she said, when she was in 7th grade, she started making Honky Tonk which became one of her family’s top casserole choices and is a favorite of her son Mark.

Now I hadn’t included Honky Tonk in the new book, so I went back to Cooking Down East to see what it was all about. It looks like Honky Tonk is a first cousin to American Chop Suey and comfort food of the first water. Mrs. Standish’s recipe as written feeds twelve, or maybe six adolescents with hollow legs. There being two old people here, I cut the recipe in half, and additionally used only a quarter of the pasta and cheese amounts recommended.

Also, because I am really kind of lazy (or maybe efficient, depending on how we spin that) about washing dishes, I tried to use only one pan for assembling and baking the dish. I dirtied up only one other pot that I used for boiling the pasta. Marge Standish has us browning hamburger and onion in a frying pan, then mixing soup and cheese and the burger mixture in a double boiler, then putting it all into a casserole to bake it. Too many pans.

It calls for American cheese but I like a very sharp cheddar and used that. I used home canned tomatoes and, per recipe instructions bought a can of cream of mushroom soup. Now, my memory of cream of mushroom soup was my mom heating it up for herself because we kids didn’t favor it, and it seemed to me that it was chock full of mushroom nuggets, and the sauce part didn’t remind me of library paste. But our memories fail when we age; and perhaps the current mushroom soup is better than I imagine it was in the past. In place of the can of soup, I bet a cup of sour cream would be grand with several handfuls of chopped mushrooms browned with the onions and hamburger.

Mrs. Standish also said to bake the casserole for forty-five minutes but my pan full was bubbling in twenty. I recommend that you check after twenty-five and if it isn’t bubbling or turning golden on top, leave it in the oven for another little while.

There was, by the way, no mentioned of seasoning. So, add salt and pepper to taste. A sprinkle of chili powder or some red pepper flakes? Up to you.

Marjorie’s Honky Tonk
Serves: 12
  • 1 pound onions, or optionally 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 pound hamburger, or more if desired
  • 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  • 1 pound American cheese, cut up or grated
  • 1 pound shell macaroni, cooked and drained
  • 3 ½ cups or about 28 ounces canned tomatoes
  • Buttered bread crumbs, optional
  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Lightly brown onions in the vegetable oil, then add the hamburger broken up, and cook together with the onions.
  3. Put the soup, undiluted, into a large pan and add the cheese and heat until the cheese is melted.
  4. Add the cooked hamburger and onion to the soup and cheese; stir to mix.
  5. Then add and stir in the macaroni.
  6. Drain the tomatoes and reserve the liquid. Add the tomatoes to the meat and macaroni mixture and add only enough of the reserved tomato liquid to moisten it all.
  7. Pour into a large casserole or a nine-by-thirteen-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake for 25 minutes or until bubbly.

By the time I was done tinkering, I suppose I made something not quite Honky Tonk but more Honky Tonkish. Tinker with Marge’s recipe if you like. Cream of celery soup? How about cheese soup? Homemade veloute? Sour cream or cream cheese? Cheddar or American or Monterey Jack? Pepper Jack? You decide.

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.