Born in 1956, I fall in the middle of the Baby Boom generation. Like most kids back then, my mom was a homemaker—the same bored, unhappy housewife isolated in the suburbs described so heartbreakingly in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Her unhappiness found its way into every corner of our house and no one could escape the penetrating reach of her irritability.
As a child, the world of adults seemed so mysterious to me. My two sisters and I would go to school in the morning and come home mid-afternoon to what seemed liked endless chores. There were always heaping baskets of clothes to be folded and shirts to be ironed. Every night we took turns washing the dishes and on Saturdays we had to clean house. Every chore was subject to my mother’s final inspection and there were many do-overs. If we were doing most of the housework what, I often wondered, had my mother been up to all day?
Yet, however much she seemed to resent her lot in life, she never seemed to mind cooking for us. At the stove, my mother seemed almost content. However cranky she seemed to us when we bounded through the door at the end of the school day, by the time I’d start to smell dinner cooking, she was noticeably calmer. Dinnertime was always the most reassuring part of my day.
My mother was what I would call an adventurous cook, which is different from a good cook (not that she was bad). She was always game to try new recipes and the mounting stacks of cookbooks she collected were evidence of her culinary curiosity. I give her loads of credit for wanting to know more. Her cookbook collection was a window into a bigger world that she was yearning to explore from the confines of her 1960s three-bedroom ranch house in the suburbs of Chicago.
Before my parents moved back north to a retirement community near where my husband and I live, she and my father sadly ditched most of her treasured cookbooks. I had asked her to wait for me to go through them, but being unsentimental (and married to my father who is both equally unsentimental and always in a rush to throw things away) they had mostly been disposed of by the time I arrived to help them pack. All that remained of interest to me was her 1950s era two-volume set of The Gourmet Cookbook from the eponymous magazine.
While there were many dishes that never varied in her weeknight repertoire, meatloaf was not one of them. For some reason her search for the perfect meatloaf recipe was something akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. In our family lore every time my mother made meatloaf she would come to the table, set down the platter and triumphantly declare, “I’ve made it a little bit different this time!”
But now that my mother is too frail to cook, I have secreted away her recipe boxes filled with hundreds of handwritten recipes from my childhood. Included among them are her trove of meatloaf recipes—not all of them mind you, but enough for me to get the gist of her meatloaf odyssey. I would absolutely kill to have found the one stuffed with blue cheese and green olives .We made her promise never to make it again so maybe the recipe was tossed along with the leftovers that same night. I think it was called Surprise Meatloaf and let me tell you, it was a surprise all right.
I found eleven meatloaf recipes in total. Most of them were some variation of ground beef either alone or in combination with pork/veal mixed together with green pepper, onion, eggs and some tomato based product (juice, ketchup or canned tomatoes). What struck me, though, was that in lieu of the fresh breadcrumbs that are usually added to a meatloaf mix, my mother’s recipes relied on either Saltine or Ritz crackers. Apparently, breakfast cereal also worked: one recipe called for ¾ cup of quick oats in place of the breadcrumbs and the 1953 edition of Joy of Cooking (which came out the year she married my father) suggests using cornflakes in lieu of crackers. Those were the days.
Yet for all the ketchup-smothered, cracker-based or “surprise” meatloafs my mother turned out over the years a good meatloaf still holds appeal for me. It is the kind of savory, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food that is just the ticket when the weather turns cooler.
We think of meatloaf as something quintessentially American—and certainly the all-beef variety smothered in ketchup has all the hallmarks of middle America—but really meatloaf, like its meatball cousin, is less all-American than you think. Especially when cold, it is not that far from eating a rustic pâté de campagne. In Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking there are several variations of a meatloaf made with veal (Pain de Veau) and the great English food writer, Elizabeth David, featured one made from ground beef and slab bacon moistened with red wine or port, a splash of wine vinegar and seasoned with dried basil, allspice and a dozen whole peppercorns. Sounds fairly elegant to me.
Not surprisingly, my meatloaf is closer to the French version because I use red wine instead of milk (or tomato juice) and a 3-meat meatloaf mix that includes ground beef, veal and pork, which makes it more refined. I also use fresh breadcrumbs made from sourdough bread—I think the last time we had Saltines in the house was when I had the stomach flu.
That said, there is never a time when the image of my mother proudly depositing her latest iteration of meatloaf before her hungry family does not cross my mind while making my own version—which hasn’t changed in years. (Although I am tempted to try the spice mix in Elizabeth David’s recipe.)
Uh oh. I may be making meatloaf a “little bit different” next time.
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What was your mother’s most enduring family meal?
Preheat oven to 350°
2/3 lbs ground beef
2/3 lbs ground veal
2/3 lbs ground pork
2 Cups freshly made sourdough breadcrumbs (crusts removed)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¾ cup red wine
With your hands, mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Pat the mixture into a loaf pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Allow the meatloaf to cool in the loaf pan for 10 minutes before slicing.
Of course leftovers can be eaten cold either alone with some cornichons and Dijon mustard or in a sandwich. I also end up freezing a few slices wrapped in individual portions in plastic wrap for up to two months. Having some dinner portions of meatloaf tucked away in the freezer during the winter months always comes in handy when you are either too busy or too tired to cook. Leftover meatloaf never tastes leftover.