The Thanksgiving holiday is often associated with sumptuous food and excess. But there are other family food traditions that bring warmth and nourishment with modesty and even economy. Some of my fondest childhood dinner-table memories center on a simple, often-maligned American dish – the meatloaf.
The meatloaf my mom, Deborah Buck, would make for my sister and me for dinner on many a chilly winter night in Seattle was simplicity itself, with only six ingredients and a simple glaze. It was part of her repertoire of stringent budget dishes, intended to stretch protein and calories as far as they could go. But the tangy-sweet ketchup, mustard and brown-sugar glaze added a zing that made the dish delicious, and demonstrated that even cooking inspired by tight times can become a beloved part of a family’s identity.
“The reason I was so very, very thrifty was that I was bound and determined to be able to afford to stay at home with you,” my mother said. “Any unnecessary expense threatened that.”
Economically motivated cuisine like my mother’s doesn’t exactly inspire flights of gastronomic fancy, but it can lead to unexpected payoffs in a family’s tastes and openness to new things.
“I often planned in connection with what was on sale at the grocery store I liked. So if fish were on sale, that’s what we had,” my mom told me when I asked her about the meatloaf era.
She ended up raising a daughter with a taste for black cod, red snapper and everything else that swam its way to the sale bin, a blessing for a young person about to have to start cooking on her own tight budget, and for an adventurous food writer.
When I graduated from college and set up shop as a proto-grownup with my own kitchen, my mom inaugurated this new phase in my life by giving me a copy of her recipe and my own meatloaf pan, a two-tiered affair with holes in the top layer, to let fat drip away from the loaf as it baked in the oven. I like to think that we have minted a tradition that crosses generations.
Some people associate meatloaf with gray bricks of mystery. But with the right recipe, it’s possible to add fluff and delicacy to the dish with the very ingredients intended to stretch its most expensive element, ground beef, a little further and feed a few more.
“It’s different because it’s more tender, less dense and compact,” my mom said of her signature loaf.
She modified it from the “Better Homes and Gardens Step by Step Cookbook” that she bought when she was first married and wanted to teach herself some basic cooking techniques. My mom would serve the dish with a plain baked potato per person, and even today, the overall tab for a family of four eating this meal comes to less than $10 – plus leftovers.
A casual survey of the Town Crier offices turned up similar stories of cooking cozy dishes with an eye toward budgetary ingenuity. Copy editor Colleen Schick’s husband cooks their family a rice and lentil dish dating back to his college days, while Associate Publisher Howard Bischoff’s family crafts variations on vegetable-and-bean soups. Leslie Coe in advertising services cooks up ample entrées – like meatloaf or chili or a casserole – then packages them into individual servings to freeze and spread out throughout the work week.
“I just need to pull something out of the freezer and add a veggie and a starch and I am good to go,” she noted.
As my coworker Leslie knows, meatloaf makes for great leftovers – especially meatloaf sandwiches. If you attempt the following recipe, try to save a bit, and heat a thick slice of leftover loaf and sandwich it between slices of bread lightly slathered with mayonnaise or aioli.
Deborah Buck’s Classic Meatloaf
2 beaten eggs
8 oz. can plain tomato sauce
1 cup soft bread crumbs, lightly packed
1 tablespoon dried, chopped onion or 1?4 cup finely chopped fresh onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1?2 lbs. ground beef
1?4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon dry mustard or 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
In large bowl, mix first five ingredients, beating lightly with fork. Add ground beef and mix lightly until well blended (too much handling will produce compact texture). Pat mixture into loaf pan and smooth top. If possible, use meatloaf pan that has insert with holes that lets fat drip to bottom.
Bake at 350 F for 1 hour and 10 minutes.
While meatloaf is baking, mix together glaze ingredients. After initial baking, spread glaze over top and bake for 10 more minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
Serves 5 to 6.