Chili and Macaroni as “Prosperity Noodles”: The Official Symbolic Food of the War on Coronavirus?

Many American wars come to be associated with symbolic patriotic names for food. Of course – we have “Liberty Cabbage” and “Freedom Fries”, which during various eras of American wartime history have been nominal placeholders for the foods normally called sauerkraut and French fries. Should we also consider “Prosperity Noodles“?

Over the past few days, a strange coincidence seemed to emerge in my social media feeds. It was the kind of thing I’ve usually come to associate with influence campaigns. (Think for example of the toilet paper shortage hysteria around COVID-19.)

On Tuesday, I saw the question posed: “Help me settle a debate. Do noodles go in chili or not?” (which was a 2018, non-COVID-19-related post originally, asked by a person from Ohio).

4-Way Cincinnati Chili (cheese and onions optional.)

The person I know who shared the question into my network was from the East Coast, and they are not connected to the original poser except by their chosen answering of the public Facebook question. They clearly thought it was a gross idea. To most people in New England, I would say the idea of eating chili on noodles is strange. The comments did reflect this.

But, having left New England for a time and gotten a graduate degree in Bowling Green Ohio – a town where one of the only restaurants open after the bar closed was Skyline Chili (where they put chili on everything), I knew the idea of chili on spaghetti was not gross at all. In fact, with a huge mound of bright orange cheddar cheese and onions, it is absolutely delicious. I was the first, but not last commenter to point out the idea of Skyline Chili as potentially debunking the negatively-worded question.

When I looked up the history of Skyline Chili, I was a bit surprised to see that the idea of the Cincinnati-style chili which it is based on – and served over noodles – seems to have emerged from Greek and Macedonian immigrants to Ohio in the 1920’s. The surprising spices of cinnamon, cumin, and even chocolate give the dish a unique Mediterranean flavor which works very well.

In the second coincidence of the story, the next day, another social media contact posted an interesting article on the US military’s favorite Meal-Ready-to-Eat (MRE): Chili and Macaroni (Chili-Mac). The article goes into the European – and sometimes conflicting origins of an Italian or Slavic-Macedonian origin to the dish. It also relates the origin of things like American Chop Suey to this culinary legacy.

Chili and Macaroni (Chili-Mac) as an MRE

Perhaps in this time of cooking what is in our cupboards, or thinking about survival food – chili and macaroni has made an organic emergence into the public consciousness, accounting for the strange two-day burst in references I saw (in a life where I can’t recall a single thought provoking instance of discussion on chili and pasta  (presumably with the exception of the first night my beer-sated Yankee self first interrogated my Ohio classmates about Skyline Chili’s menu).

As I ate the unplanned meal of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and French fries which my family prepared last evening, and recounted this idea; my Mom told me she’d been planning on making chili over pasta the night before.  (Not kidding.)

With North Macedonia’s entry into NATO, and the current epidemiological crisis which has been likened to a war (and I fear is more literally-so one than most realize ), this bomb-shelter-style food (which just happens to be the US military’s ‘favorite’ MRE) does have a definite accessible war-time value, in a world where the perspective of real food (and toilet paper) shortage seems very salient.

Further, the idea of chili and macaroni as specifically a (North) Macedonian or Italian immigrant food – or even as a play on a Chinese dish (Chop Suey) – speaks to the melting pot pastiche of American culinary tradition, as well as our current national and international battles.

Chili and macaroni as a dish emerges as a cupboard-accessible food, with roots in military superiority and international prosperity. In short, the perfect food for our present war. I submit that it might just be the Liberty Cabbage or Freedom Fries of our current battle.

In the way in which the food itself comes from immigrants to America, seeking a better life – or in the way the post-World War II order led by NATO  and US military might has brought economic growth and peace – or even in the shared culture of noodles and economic cooperation (versus conflict) between (Far) East and West in the era which has preceded today’s –  the idea of Chili and Macaroni as some kind of symbolic “Prosperity Noodles” maybe becomes something more than just a coincidence as we dwell on the coronavirus.

It becomes a reminder of not only of self-sufficiency, but of cooperative resilience and a call to future victory in the war against coronavirus and those who would seek to profit from chaos. The virus is the enemy of global economic prosperity, and rides on a swarm of divisive lies. It must be defeated.

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