Hamburger Helper and I have been good friends for a very long time. Back in grad school, which is almost thirty years ago now, it was a cheap and easy meal that created leftovers for the next few days, and, for the stroganoff variety anyway, it was delicious. I vaguely remember a cheeseburger casserole version that I liked as well, but the stroganoff was the best.
It wasn't much like real beef stroganoff, or at least like the version my mother used to make, or like any version I've tasted in restaurants - I don't think I've ever had two stroganoffs that tasted similar to each other, so I can't say I know what it really should be like. Back then, the kit came with the pasta and two sauce packets. You'd brown the hamburger, drain it, then mix in the first sauce packet, water, and milk, and let it simmer. While that was cooking, you'd take the second sauce packet, which was the sour cream sauce, and mix it with a couple of tablespoons of milk, and it would thicken as it sat. When the cooking was done, you'd fold the sour cream sauce in, then serve. That sauce would give it the milky gray colour and the creamy sour flavor that makes the stroganoff, and it was divine.
Now, it's one sauce packet, and the final product is kind of oily brown and has no hint of cream. My husband loved it, though he readily admitted that it tastes nothing like what it used to be. To me, it was edible food. I'm perfectly happy making it for him, but I wouldn't seek it out on my own.
Thing is, me and Hamburger Helper, we have a history. I can't make this stuff without all the memories coming back.
The best one was back when my husband and I first started dating, like probably within the first month. He came over to my apartment one day and I had made the stroganoff for dinner. It wasn't a date or anything, just him happening to come have dinner at my place. He took one bite and was just floored, and started going on about how good a cook I was, and I was like, "Um. This is Hamburger Helper." I mean, I'd like to take credit for it, but really, my talent comes out of a box.
However, Hamburger Helper is just as likely to bring to mind my boyfriend from grad school. You know how you look back at your old relationships and wonder why you didn't see all the signs from the get-go? Yeah, this is the one. (Well, no, actually, my first boyfriend in college was worse, but that's a story for another time.) His name was Todd, and he was a psychology grad student and self-proclaimed feminist. He once told me that he believed that when he gets married, he shouldn't have to do housework, because "I'll be out there working to earn for the family, so I should not have to do work at home - my time at home should be relaxing." Considering he was dating someone on a career path of her own, I have no idea who he thought was going to clean the house.
Todd was heavily in debt to his credit cards (he'd held a job for a year before going into grad school, and during that year, he'd run up all his cards), and though his school things (tuition, dorm, meal plan) were paid for by his parents, he couldn't afford to head back home for the summer after our first year or to pay for the dorm during that time, so he asked if he could stay in my apartment, promising to pay me back half the rent when school was back in session and he was getting his teaching stipend. I knew he wouldn't be able to afford that (he consistently overspent his teaching stipend), so I said, okay, instead of paying half the rent, I want you to take care of the following chores: wash the dishes, take out the trash, and clean the bathroom.
He went ballistic.
He was offended that I would treat him like a maid, "demanding" that he do work for me. He may not be able to pay for the rent, but working it off instead - that was out of the question. (In hindsight, this is all perfectly in character, isn't it?) At the time, I was, what, twenty-three? I had no idea how to handle this. So, he ended up staying in my place all summer for free. He never did pay me any of that rent he promised.
That summer went about what you'd expect. I did teaching and research all day, while he... did whatever he did in the apartment. (He rented a lot of videos from the Blockbuster a couple of blocks away. How could he afford that but not afford to help me with the rent?)
One day, when I got home from the lab, I found that he had cleaned the bathroom as a surprise for me. By "clean", he'd taken a sponge, put a little Comet on it, and ran it over the shower and tub. Once. The surfaces were still brown, grimy, and rough. I'm not even sure he rinsed them, because there was still grains of Comet all over, and so I spent the next half hour finishing the job (might as well do it when it's a quarter started). He, of course, was offended that I wasn't properly grateful for all the work he'd done.
I also did all the cooking, so one day, he decided that he'd make dinner: Hamburger Helper stroganoff.
Now, when I was in high school, I got into a conversation with my biology teacher about oyster stew. I don't know how it started, but he loved oyster stew but didn't know how to make it, and my mother used to make it all the time. So, I got the recipe from my mother and gave it to him. He tried it that weekend and it was a disaster. You see, oyster stew requires that you scald the milk. My teacher didn't know what that meant, and there was no easy Internet lookup at the time (and his wife wasn't home), so he thought it meant to boil the milk. He put the milk on the stove and boiled it like it was water, and, as milk will do, it foamed over and flooded his stove and kitchen. It took him the evening to clean it up. He was very happy that his wife wasn't home, and he never told her that it ever occurred.
The thing is, he read the instructions. He just didn't understand them.
Todd didn't the read the instructions. You know, those simple "1, 2, 3" instructions on the back of the box? Not at all. Maybe there were too many words for him.
He got out the skillet, put in the raw ground beef, the pasta, and the sauce packets, then added the water and milk and started heating it up. I got home and he dragged me into the kitchen to proudly show me the dinner he was making for me, but wondered why it didn't look like my stroganoff and was instead a soupy mess. I ended up throwing it out (I couldn't tell if the meat was cooked, and it looked thoroughly unappetizing), and then sat through his tirade of "how was I supposed to know how to do this", and "you should be thanking me for trying to do something nice for you".
I dated this guy for a year and half more. I was young and stupid. He still owes me back rent. And he never returned my Game Boy.
This is what Hamburger Helper calls up from my memories. It's always worth a good laugh.