April 10, 2010
Eighteen years ago at dusty backpacker restaurant near the Labrang Monastery I encountered an English language menu item title "Beef Slum Galleon Spiced." At a table was my buddy JP, a few wayward Australians (one named Jennita Gay who was surfing her way around the world, but somehow ended up in Tibet), and a Japanese kid named Goto who rarely spoke. It's possible my friend Oliver was there too. We took delight in what we assumed was translation gone horribly wrong. Ever since then, every few years, JP and Goto—independent of each other—bring up the mysterious and wonderful sounding Beef Slum Galleon Spiced trying to imagine the tortured path that brought the string of words into being.
Today I came across the word "slumgullion". According to the OED it's a North American mining term for the "muddy deposit left in mining sluice" [Slum is an archaic English term for mining mud and gullion is a term for a mining pit]. Miners, being miners, started referring to their stews as slumgullion and soon the definition of slumgullion as a stew began to dominate. The earliest reference I could find to the term was in a book titled "The Best of Kin Hubbard: Abe Martin's Sayings and Wisecracks." The passage is account of a story from 1828 but it's unclear when the passage was actually published. [The OED 's earliest reference is from Mark Twain's Roughing It where the word is used jokingly to describe a "weak drink." By then and through the early 1900's the references are generally pejorative and associated with poverty or just a really crappy stew. Here's another reference, this one from Jack London. There is some speculation that term Mulligan Stew, also a hobo type stew, is a bastardization of slumgullion stew.... This seems like a stretch to me. Recent web references are generally nostalgic— septuagenarians recalling delicious stews of their youth.].
From the 1860's to the 1940's slumgullion seemed to be a relatively common American term. It was mentioned enough in literature and in news reports to turn up in modern google searches.
So it seems that our Tibetan restaurateur was not involved in a seriously misguided translation as we had suspected, but he was probably just using a pre-Communist revolution English dictionary from the 30's (these were common in China in the early 90's) and slumgullion was the proper translation of his dish. Somewhere along the line there was some phonetic spelling going on and gullion became galleon. An easy mistake! Mystery solved!