Bean and hamburger skillet dinner. Photo by Lillian Lake

If you remember Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper of the 1970s, raise your left hand. Why the left? “Lefty” was the mascot for the product introduced to consumers to address the 1970s meat shortage by adding pasta. I find this information fascinating because in contrast, in 1984, “Chicken Helper” was invented in response to readily available boneless and skinless chicken breasts. I assumed the name “Hamburger Helper” meant the product enhanced hamburger, as in making it taste better, while stretching food budgets, and readily answering the question, “what’s for dinner.” It was later in life that I learned the original intent.

In 2013, Betty Crocker changed the product’s name to “Helper.” Over the years, the company created different versions of the boxed pasta and seasonings to address changing tastes and needs. I’ve only eaten the tuna and original hamburger helper when after a late night at work, mom would come home and reach under the cabinet for one of the several boxes she had picked up on sale. A box was about enough for dinner for the two of us, with some left for lunch the next day.

Hamburger helper is a “skillet dinner,” which is a meal that can be made in a single skillet and go from stovetop to table. Pasta or rice, vegetables, and protein are the usual ingredients. Throw the cooked ingredients into a casserole dish, bake it in the oven, and it magically becomes its no-so-distant cousin, the “casserole.” If the skillet is oven-safe, add cheese as a topper and pop in the oven until the cheese melts. Or top the mixture with canned biscuits and bake at 400°F for about 20 minutes or until the biscuit tops are golden brown.

Like casseroles, once you get down the essential ingredients, get creative and add other ingredients. Skillet dinners were another clever way homemakers after World War ll addressed the need to be conservative with their food budget and not waste food. Remember, “it costs as much for what you keep as for what you throw away.” And today, we know that cost goes beyond dollars and cents.

The leftovers from today’s skillet recipe doubles as a sweeter, non-spicy twist on burritos. Extra veggies in the refrigerator or garden? Dice each and add when browning the onions. Invent your version by adding other spices and herbs. It’s the perfect barbeque accessory!

Easy Sweet and Tangy Hamburger and Beans (8 servings)

Ingredients

1 lb hamburger

½ lb bacon, cut up

½ small red onion, chopped

2 cups pork and beans

I (15 oz) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained

½ cup ketchup

1 Tbs brown sugar

1 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp cumin

¼ cup vinegar

In a frying skillet, using a fork, break apart the hamburger and brown over medium heat. Add bacon and chopped onions, cooking until the bacon is well-done and onions are tender. Add the remaining ingredients. Mix. Optional: Bake in the oven at 350°F for 30 mins.

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