Kathleen Purvis

Old recipe for SOS is a real call for help

I missed my chance at a Pulitzer the other day. At least, that’s what the reader said when he was getting off the phone:

“You should get a Pulitzer for what you do.”

What do I do to deserve that? I told the poor guy how to make Creamed Chip Beef on Toast.

Of course, he didn’t ask for Creamed Chip Beef on Toast. He asked for SOS, the name it’s probably been called since the first U.S. Marine stormed into the halls of Montezuma.

He also took great glee in asking if I needed to know what SOS stands for – and no, it isn’t “Stuff on Something Else.” Dude, seriously? My dad was a Marine. I was raised to chew glass, crawl over rocks and salute Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast.

Yes, most men who came back from military service have stories about being fed creamed beef three times a day, week after week. A few, like my caller, developed a fondness for it. Most despised it for its gloppy familiarity.

My dad loved the stuff, but for a different reason than most men. Dad was with the Marines in the South Pacific, which meant getting sent over half the globe on Navy ships. In the convoy that delivered them to places like Guadalcanal and Peleliu, ships were paired up and given rations accordingly. Half got Spam, half got creamed chip beef on toast.

My dad’s ship was a Spam boat. Spam, three times a day, for weeks at a time. The only break in the routine was Christmas, when two ships would come together long enough to swap rations. Suddenly, your Spam diet was relieved by the luxurious joy of Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast.

For the rest of his life, my father lived in a Spam-free zone. No Spam in our house, ever. He couldn’t even stand the sight of an empty can in our trash. But chipped beef on toast? It sent him into raptures.

Sometimes, my mother made it for his breakfast on his birthday. Sometimes, she made it for dinner. It was a staple of our childhoods, as familiar as peanut butter and jelly.

Now, it is true there is nothing lovely about creamed chipped beef, with or without the toast. It’s pink bits of dried beef, floating in a milk-based gravy. There’s no polite way to describe how that looks on a plate.

As a loyal reader of ladies’ magazines, though, my mother was undaunted. She did her best to gild that lily, by pressing bread into muffin cups, trimming the edges to look like tulips, and baking it into cheery little cups.

Looking back now, I’m not sure if it was resourcefulness or a cry for help.

Still, for my caller, I was happy to recite the recipe: Unroll the dried beef from one of those little glass jars, rinse it to cut down on the salt (or not). Cut it into strips.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and stir in 2 tablespoons of flour. Cook it a minute, then stir in 2 cups of milk. Stir in the beef, then bring it all to a boil until it thickens. Serve it over toast, either sliced or baked into tiny cups.

Then call the Pulitzer committee. I bet they take write-in votes.