April 10, 2010

Beef Slum Galleon Spiced, A Mystery Solved

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.].

These references piqued my interest in slumgullion recipes which led me to this page and this page where the respective authors take you through their own exploration of the word/stew.

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!

Tangentially Related: Slumgullion Pass, The Cannibal of Slumgullion Pass, & a NTimes story on John Roberts despite his other failings likes the word slumgullion.

posted at 11:24 PM by raul

Filed under: personal history

TAGS: beef slum galleon spiced (1) mysteries (2) slumgullion (1) words (5)


04/12/10 04:34 PM

I'm just in shock. And also, I have to admit, mourning the loss of one of the persistently strange and lovely mysteries of my life. The word 'slumgullion' is a gift to my vocabulary, but I fear it comes at too high a price. It will take me a while longer to get used to a world without beef slum galleon spiced.

By the way - Olivier was definitely not there and I have no memory of this Goto. There was, however, that rather annoying guy in a black newsboy cap who attached himself to our group (I remember him distinctly because later that evening - you must have been writing letters at the hotel - I was trying to get alone with Jennita so I could make a pass at her, but I just couldn't shake the bastard).

04/12/10 04:37 PM

As I remember it you spent the evening coughing terribly sick and were still trying to make a pass despite your enervated state. I went out for a walk with those guys and ended up getting chased by wild dogs.

04/13/10 04:55 AM

Subsequent nights, hombre. You are speaking of the first; I of the second.

I managed to avoid the dogs, but did not escape being pelted (gently-ish) with pebbles thrown by eight year old monks on a rooftop, who seemed to find the whole thing riotously funny.

04/13/10 05:00 PM

there's a great reference in David Sedaris' essay "Naked" where the nudists promote a weekly meal called a "hobo slumgullion."

I read a book called "The Tramp in America" that is full of hobo lore including a nice discussion of the traditional slumgullion.

04/14/10 09:38 AM

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