Meatloaf, that old standby, has just acquired a new cachet. Or has it?
A recent column by Frank Bruni in The New York Times focused on food snobs, in particular their ridicule of Donald Trump’s love of meatloaf. Weeks earlier, Trump had “forced Chris Christie to follow his lead at a White House lunch and eat meatloaf, which the president praised as his favorite item on the menu.”
According to Bruni, a former restaurant critic, news coverage of the lunch “hinted that Trump wasn’t merely a bully but also a rube. What grown-up could possibly be so fond of this retro, frumpy dish?”
Bruni’s answer: “Um, me. I serve meatloaf at dinner parties. I devoted a whole cookbook to it.”
Allow me to join forces with Frank Bruni. Putting aside my general negativity towards all things Trump, I have to admit I’m fond of meatloaf, too.
My recollections of eating meatloaf go back to the dining-room table in our West Rogers Park apartment in the 1950s. My mother was never an enthusiastic cook. She prepared meals for us with a minimal degree of joy, no doubt wishing she could spend her time on other pursuits. It was simply expected of her, as the wife and mother in our mid-century American family, to come up with some sort of breakfast, lunch, and dinner nearly every day.
Breakfasts rarely featured much more than packaged cereal and milk. I remember putting a dusting of sugar on corn flakes—something I haven’t done since childhood. Did we add fresh fruit to our cereal? Not very often. We might have added raisins. But fresh fruit, like the abundant blueberries and strawberries we can now purchase all year long, wasn’t available in Chicago grocery stores during our long cold ‘50s winters. At least not in our income bracket.
Daddy occasionally made breakfast on the weekends. I remember watching him standing in front of our ‘30s-style mint green enamel-covered stove, whipping up his specialty, onions and eggs, with aplomb. But those highly-anticipated breakfasts were rare.
[I recently discovered that stoves like that one are still available. They’re advertised online by a “retro décor lover’s dream resource” in Burbank, as well as on eBay, where an updated model is currently listed for $4,495.]
As for lunch, my public grade school compelled us to walk home for lunch every day. Only a handful of sub-zero days broke that mold. Our school had no cafeteria, or even a lunchroom, where kids could eat in frigid weather. Only on alarmingly cold days were we permitted to bring a lunch from home and eat it in the school auditorium. If we pleaded convincingly enough, our parents might let us buy greasy hamburgers at Miller’s School Store.
Most days I’d walk home, trudging the six long blocks from school to home and back within an hour. Mom would have lunch waiting for me on our breakfast-room table, mostly sandwiches and the occasional soup. Mom rarely made her own soup. She generally opened cans of Campbell’s “vegetable vegetarian,” eschewing canned soups that included any possibility of unknown meat.
Mom’s dinner specialties included iceberg-lettuce salads, cooked veggies and/or potatoes, and a protein of some kind. Because of her upbringing, she invariably chose fish, poultry, or cuts of meats like ground beef, beef brisket, and lamb chops.
Which brings us to meatloaf.
I must have liked Mom’s meatloaf because I don’t have a single negative memory associated with it. And when I got married and began preparing meals for my own family, I never hesitated to make meatloaf myself.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to prepare dinner every night. I was immensely lucky to marry a man who actually enjoyed cooking. Although I inherited my mother’s reluctance to spend much time in the kitchen, Herb relished preparing elaborate gourmet dishes á la Julia Child—in fact, he often used her cookbook—and proudly presenting them to our daughters and me whenever his schedule allowed.
But when I was the cook, meatloaf was one of my favorite choices. I’d buy lean ground beef, add breadcrumbs, ketchup, and assorted herbs and spices, mix it all together with my bare hands, and heat the finished product until it was just right. Aware by then of warnings about high-fat red meat, I’d carefully remove my loaf pan from the oven and scrupulously drain as much fat from the pan as I could. The result? A tasty and relatively low-fat dish. My family loved it.
At some point I discovered the glories of leftover meatloaf. Chilled in the fridge overnight, it made a toothsome sandwich the next day. It was especially good on rye bread and loaded with ketchup. Wrapped in a plastic baggie, it would go from home to wherever I traveled to work, and I had to use my most stalwart powers of self-discipline to wait till lunchtime to bite into its deliciousness.
Those days are sadly over. I rarely prepare dinner for my family anymore, and my consumption of meat products has gone way down. Most days, when I reflect on what I’ve eaten, I realize that, more often than not, I’ve unknowingly eaten a wholly vegetarian diet.
I haven’t eaten meatloaf in years. But hearing about Trump’s penchant for it has awakened my tastebuds. If I could just get my hands on a tasty low-fat version like the one I used to make, my long meatloaf-drought might finally be over.