I came to cooking meatloaf late. I remember eating it in my childhood and liking it, I guess. But as I grew into adulthood I absorbed the general cultural disdain for the meal and didn’t try making it for myself. I remember that plumber in the movie Stuart Little saying something like “you guys must really like your meatloaf” with barely concealed disgust as he worked on a clogged drain. For some reason I found myself agreeing with him. If he didn’t like it, why should I? All that was before my children really discovered food.
I’m not talking about the transition from early childhood to preadolescence; that transition from baby food to people food. No. I’m talking about after that. Preadolescence is that phase in human development in which a child doesn’t seem to eat much at all. I thought it was always going to be like that. I thought the phrase “eating me out of house and home” was hyperbole. I didn’t know what full on adolescence held for me.
Cameron went from baby food to solid food. Yeah, he ate. Yeah, solid food was more expensive than baby food, but he didn’t really eat that much. Patrick made the same transition to solid food a couple of years later and again, no big deal. Neither one of them ate very much, even when out together. They seemed to pull calories out of the air. Rachel came along and moved to solid food and I started to feel the increased demand, but it didn’t increase by much right away. I could keep up. Again, no big deal, I thought. Easy.
However, one by one they really discovered food. That is, they started to eat more, a lot more. Something changed. Mealtime became something they needed rather than something they tolerated. In technical terms it’s the transition from preadolescence to adolescence. I wasn’t ready.
I didn’t really notice when my firstborn, Cameron, transitioned to adolescence and discovered food. Not on a conscious level, anyway. It was okay for a couple of years. His portion sizes went up a bit. The volume of leftovers began to shrink. It barely registered. I simply found myself gravitating to those meals that produce larger volumes of food: spaghetti, stir-fry, anything with rice, corn, and gravy. Then my second son, Patrick, moved into adolescence and discovered food. Very slowly, meal prep became work, and I just didn’t know why. I began to feel rushed in the kitchen. Everyone was hungry, it seemed, and everyone was grumpy. My grocery bill started to take up a larger portion of my income. If I thought about it at all, I passed it off as due to inflation. Food was getting more expensive, as it always does. And everyone is a bit peckish from time to time.
It was a couple of more years before I realized I might be in trouble. This was about the time Rachel came into adolescence and discovered food. By that time Cameron was moving beyond adolescence. It started to feel like my cookware wasn’t big enough. I was depending more heavily on dessert to finish filling the children when I had to admit that demand was far exceeding my capacity. I was losing ground. Either the family had to start eating in shifts, or I needed to learn how to produce larger meals.
That’s when I first started thinking about meatloaf. If it worked for mom feeding five, it should work for me. I don’t remember any of us going hungry. Mom tells a different story; one in which her children wouldn’t eat anything they hadn’t had before. Apparently, we wouldn’t accept anything unfamiliar. Of course, that was from a time when the family owned a grocery store. If supper wasn’t sufficient, or we didn’t like what mom was cooking, any one of us could quietly go down to the store and pick up anything we wanted to top off our stomachs. I didn’t own a grocery store for my children to raid. What I served was it. And if it wasn’t enough, then it wasn’t enough.
I didn’t want to just make meatloaf. I wanted to be sure they’d eat it. I wanted to make great meatloaf. I embraced the conviction that great meatloaf was not only possible, but within my grasp. I started with research; asking colleagues at work, friends at church, what makes a good meatloaf. It doesn’t have many moving parts I thought; ground beef, diced onion, bread filler, and ketchup. How hard could it be? But I found a lot of variation. I began to wonder if greatness might be more elusive than I originally thought.
The first key discovery, which came from someone at the restaurant I used to work at, was the addition of Worcestershire sauce. I liked that. The more flavor the better. I remember dipping my steak in Worcestershire sauce when eating at home when I was a child. I remember routinely soaking my hamburgers in the stuff just as they finished frying in the pan. This was good sauce, and it tickled me a bit to find a new use for the stuff.
Another discovery, coming from someone at church, was the substitution of ground saltines in stead of bread crumbs. That sounded tasty. I remember as a child sitting down in front of the TV with a sleeve of saltines and a jar of peanut butter and eating every last one of those crackers in a single sitting. They were a great snack. I was fascinated by the idea that one could use them in a main meal, and I found breadcrumbs rather boring anyway.
My favorite innovation came from Curtiss, my line manager at my new job. He’d been diagnosed with gluten intolerance recently and he was still adjusting to this new paradigm of bread-free cooking and eating. His innovation for meatloaf was inspired. “I use grated parmesan cheese instead of bread crumbs,” he said casually as I was discussing a colleague’s recipe within earshot. I was intrigued. I liked parmesan cheese a lot, and often lamented its limited application in life.
“That works?” I asked. “Doesn’t the cheese melt and make a gooey mess or something?
“Nope” he cheerfully replied. “It makes it taste way better.” This came as a revelation. If parmesan cheese could improve pizza, spaghetti, and lasagna so much, it might make the humble meatloaf into something fantastic, something great. I became inspired and moved from research into production.
The day came for my first run at the meal. I’d purchased everything I needed, assembled all the ingredients on the dinner table, and began to put the meal together. I’d decided to split the difference on the question of filler and use a half cup of crushed saltines and a half cup of grated parmesan cheese, just to be sure I benefitted from both innovations. I felt like a pioneer in cooking.
Cameron breezed through the kitchen, paused, and asked, “Whatcha’ makin’ for supper, dad?” This was before I started regularly involving Cameron in my cooking, and it was before I had the courage or need for multi-ingredient meals. It had all been pretty basic stuff; chicken & rice, pork chops, hamburgers, and the like.
“Meatloaf,” I replied glowingly and with a smile. With proven favorites like parmesan cheese, saltine crackers, and Worcestershire sauce in the mix, I had a lot of confidence in the coming meal.
He lowered his voice as if sharing confidential information: “Dad, you know I don’t like meatloaf.” His eyes were open a little wider than usual. I could read growing concern.
“You’ve never even had meatloaf,” I replied. “I’ve never made this dish before. You’re gonna love it.” He looked doubtful as he wandered out of the kitchen. “I’ll call you when supper is ready,” I said after him.
I was adding ingredients to the beef and mixing it with my hands when Patrick wandered into the kitchen. “Hi, dad,” he said. “What’s for supper?” He’d come from a different direction so I was pretty sure I wasn’t being set up. How could one go wrong with ketchup as one of the main ingredients, I thought?
“Meatloaf,” I answered. Confidence was still high.
Incredulously he replied, “Dad, you know I don’t like-”
“Get out,” I said. “You’ve never even had it before.” The smell of onions filled the kitchen as I added them to the mix. I was sure the family would love it. I wanted them to like it. I needed them to at least eat it. Meatloaf was a big meal, and I needed large meals if I was going to sustain this crowd. This was going to be my go-to supper in the coming years if I was to keep up with the increasing caloric demands of a growing family.
This conversation may have occurred one or two more times before the meal was ready. Rachel – the third child – wasn’t sure she’d like meatloaf, neither was my wife, Debbie. I was undeterred. I was pursuing greatness in the very survival of my family, I thought rather grandiosely.
I’d closed the kitchen while it was roasting in the oven and stood guard. There would be no snacking before supper. I was also strategic about the day I had chosen to do this: Saturday. It was one of only two days out of the week in which Debbie and I had full control over lunch. I’d made sure lunchtime was a meager meal this day in the hopes of drawing out their appetites for supper. Nothing was going to stop me from making this a success.
I served it with roasted potatoes, whole kernel corn, and garlic toast, side dishes everybody liked. The family gathered ‘round with a hunger and an interest I’d cultivated all day. They nibbled, carefully considered taste, texture, and temperature. The room quieted. They began to eat. It was almost like I Kings 18:38, the whole thing was consumed in that one sitting. No complaints. No leftovers. Everyone asked for seconds. Everyone was surprised. It was a hit. I was relieved. “We’re gonna need a bigger meatloaf,” I thought.
It was a watershed event. Soon I was making double batches of meatloaf. From this I gained the confidence to expand my repertoire to include other big-dish favorites like pork roast, turkey breast, and hamburger hot dish. We could actually start to have leftovers again. It meant that I could both keep ahead of demand and still have fun and enjoy cooking. It started me on this path of bold cooking an increasing variety of meals. I could become a real family cook, and it almost happened too late.
6 to 8 medium russet potatoes, unpeeled and washed (Lately I’ve been brushing them with melted butter and covering ‘em with sea salt and coarse ground pepper)
3 lbs. of 80% lean ground beef
½ cup red onions, finely chopped
½ cup parmesan cheese, grated
½ cup of finely crushed saltine crackers
2 oz Worcestershire sauce
8 oz ketchup
1 tbsp of brown sugar
1 tsp. crushed red peppers
Mix the beef and onions by hand in a large bowl. Add the parmesan cheese, crushed saltines, and mix well. Add the Worcestershire sauce, half of the ketchup, and both of the eggs while continuing to kneed the mix together.
Mold by hand into a loaf in an 18-inch baking dish, leaving one to two inches on all sides.
Mix the remaining ketchup, brown sugar, and crushed red peppers and spread over the top of the loaf.
Position the potatoes between the meatloaf and the edge of the dish on all sides.
Cover in tin foil and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Remove the tin foil and continue baking for another 15 minutes or until the top darkens.
Serve hot. Feeds five.
You may want to make a gravy from the drippings.
Simmer a roux; 2 tbsps. of the oil from the meatloaf and 2 tbsps. of flour in a deep sided frying pan. Add a cup of milk and stir constantly until boiling. You may want to add more milk or water if the gravy thickens up too much and bring back to a boil. Remove from heat and serve on the side.