My mom, bless her soul, was not a good cook. To be fair, taking care of a house and yard, two young girls and dog didn’t leave her with a lot of extra time.
Her idea of a vegetable was something that came out of a can. Green beans, peas, corn, creamed corn; we basically never saw the frozen kind. Mushy peas, tasteless green beans and corn that stuck to your teeth like glue (she liked to bake the corn in the oven until it was dry and sticky for some reason) was part of our normal fare. On occasion, she would boil sliced carrots and celery together until they became a largely unrecognizable mass of something that pigs might not eat. But she was the queen of meatloaf.
On the nights that she made meatloaf for dinner, I would silently rejoice. Add mashed potatoes (not whipped, Dad liked them with lumps left in) and I was in epicurean heaven. I liked the mashed potatoes, loved the meatloaf and tolerated the canned vegetable.
Now and then, Mom would make “pizza.” She would make dough from Bisquick and smear it thickly on a cookie sheet. On top of that, she would spread an entire can of tomato paste and sprinkle on some oregano. Then she would sprinkle the ground beef (cooked to a dry, brown doneness in a sauce pan) on top of the paste. Next, she would place very thin slices of sharp cheddar cheese (the only cheese my dad would eat and the only kind we had in the house) carefully over the top of all that. Into the oven it would go until the crust was done. It did not look like pizza. It did not smell like pizza. It did not taste like pizza. But I wasn’t to know this until some many years later.
One night, I was on a date arranged for me by my mom and grandma. After the movie, his parents dropped us off in front of a pizza parlor for dinner. When I saw the place, I asked if we couldn’t go someplace else. As far as I knew, I did not like pizza. His parents were not amenable and he really wanted pizza, so I settled in for an unenjoyable meal. Boy was I surprised.
It wasn’t until I met my husband-to-be, Bernd, that I learned what good cooking was. Perhaps I should qualify that. Dad always seemed happy enough with Mom’s cooking and so did my sister. So okay, I’m sure they noticed how I would cram every single bit of canned vegetable into my mouth all at once and then attempt to swallow it in one big gulp (sometimes without chewing), but no one ever commented on it.
The first time Bernd invited me to dinner at his house was an eye-opener. There were no canned vegetables in his mother’s pantry, but there were a few frozen in the freezer. The fridge was full of fresh veggies of all kinds; broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels’ sprouts, spinach, but no carrots. Bernd’s dad couldn’t stand them. When I met Bernd and his mom and dad, I realized I really did like vegetables … a lot. It was just the canned stuff that I wasn’t too fond of.
Bernd’s mom made all sorts of wonderful vegetable dishes. She made foods (mostly German dishes) I had never even heard of but that were heavenly. I aspired to being a good cook like she was. But you know, she never made meatloaf and even if she had, I’m not sure she could have done it half as well as my mom did.
Mom would chop and dice lots of onion, carrot and celery. She would get out the parsley flakes (a precious commodity in our house) and add them to the bowl. She would throw in an egg and a whole bunch of crushed soda crackers. Then came the catsup; lots of it. Salt and pepper were added when she dumped in the raw ground beef. Then her hands went into it and massaged it around until it became a great, gluey, homogeneous mass. She always made more than a standard loaf pan could hold (leftover meatloaf sandwiches are to die for) and so she would put the big glob of goodness into her largest casserole and pat it down all nice and even. The pièce de résistance was a generous stripe of catsup on the top of it. Then into the oven it would go. The smell of it baking was like heaven and the catsup topping became a caramelized treat. If I could have eaten only the top of it, I would have. For sure, I always saved that part for last.
When Bernd and I were first married, Mom’s meatloaf was my best dish and I made it exactly the way she did. But since then, having developed all the food allergies that I have, I’ve had to make a lot of changes to her original recipe. But my meatloaf is till rippin’ good. Just ask Bernd. I use a lot of veggies just like Mom did. She did it to stretch the meat. I do it for love of vegetables. And I can’t use prepared catsup because it is mostly sweetened with corn syrup and has way too much sodium. But a can of tomato paste, some rice vinegar and raw coconut sugar does a nice approximation. I use golden flax seed meal instead of an egg and rolled oats instead of the crushed crackers. I throw in a few spices Mom never thought of; like paprika and I use celery seed instead of fresh celery to help lower the sodium level. Orange, red and yellow mini bell peppers round out the flavor.
Respecting efficiency in all things as I do, I mix it up right in the casserole in which I will be baking it … in the microwave. Yes, you can make an awesome meatloaf in the microwave oven.
So many of my fondest memories are wrapped up in foods. Like the smell of cookies baking before Christmas, Easter ham, New Year’s lasagna and so much more. But every time I make a meatloaf takes me back to the fondest of moments. Mom, Dad, my Sis and me settled around the dinner table, chatting about the day we just had and simply enjoying Mom’s magical meatloaf.