I bet a few of my Australian and English readers blanched at my title today. But there is (or was) such a thing as ‘canned Willie,’ I assure you, but it is not what you probably think (thank goodness.) The phrase is American military slang for canned corned beef, and is said to have first been used by the American Expeditionary Force in France in World War I.
Canned Willie is (or was) an occasional ingredient in ‘Mulligan stew’, which is another American invention. The first appearance in print that I have found to date of the concept of Mulligan stew occurred in 1898, in the Fresno (Calif.) Morning Republican. The context is again, military:
"Alvin Akers and Topsy Faber are in charge of the culinary department [of C Company] now and the tasty manner in which they get up a 'Mulligan' stew would tickle the palate of the most critical epicure.”
It can safely be assumed, I think, that a Mulligan stew was made from whatever was available to the cook of the day. To the WW I cook, what was available was canned corned beef, which for reasons known only to the soldiers of the time, was given the nick-name ‘canned Willie.’ An article in Collier’s Magazine in 1913 says that ‘the recipe calls for canned Willie, spuds, onions, canned tomatoes, all mixed up together.’
As for the name ‘Mulligan’ – it is probably a result of the irresistible urge of military men to create fanciful slang names for everything. The mixed up stew that was a mainstay of their diet was a parody of Irish Stew, and Mulligan is an Irish name, so came to refer to the dish by the same process that resulted in potatoes being called ‘Murphies’ at some point in time (memo to self to look into that.) Additional word-creep led to the word mulligan (without a capital) being extended to include ‘mulligan battery’ (the cook wagon) and ‘mulligan car’ (a railroad dining car.)
Now, for the recipe for the day, for the most critical epicures, amongst you, here is a recipe from The Stag Cook Book, Written for Men by Men (New York, 1922.) The recipe was provided by the writer Stewart Edward White.
This is a camp dish to be cooked over an open fire. I guarantee nothing on a stove. I know nothing about stoves, and have a dark suspicion of them. To make it: Place in a kettle half full of cold water either 9a) fish cut in chunks, (b) a couple of dozen clams, or (c) a half dozen chunks of venison about the size of a tennis ball, depending on whether you want a Fish Mulligan, a Clam Mulligan, or a Game Mulligan. Also depending on what you have. Also a half dozen peeled potatoes and three large onions. Salt and pepper, bring slowly to a boil. Add a handful of cubes of salt pork or bacon. Simmer slowly until the potatoes disintegrated. If you have the remains of a can of corn, or a little cold rice or anything of that nature, drop them in. Next put in all the stale bread or hard tack the traffic will bear. Dissolve a tablespoonful of flour in a little warm water, and stir that in for thickening. Cook slowly until you cant stand it any longer, and fly to it.