Paige Swenson Lindell
My mother cooks with great specificity. She was a proponent of mis en place before anyone knew about mis en place. If it says two tablespoons she puts in two tablespoons, not two sloppy rounded cereal spoons as I am apt to do.
My mother makes an amazing meatloaf. It is a free form loaf with the aroma of cloves and allspice, the same spices used in Swedish meatballs. It is kneaded and formed by hand and covered with sautéed mushrooms, and if it’s a particularly special occasion, bacon strips are laid over the top to crisp up in the oven. This is perhaps the only variation from the written word. One I had not experienced often as the child of budget-minded, health-conscious parents at a time when bacon was not the darling it is today. My mom said the bacon variation was pre-children, a honeymoon variation. It reappeared after all the children were out of the house - the meatloaf with two strips of bacon; one strip for him and one strip for her.
The meatloaf recipe was one of the first written recipes that I had in my possession. It laid dormant while I was a vegetarian in college. During those years, I cut my teeth on other recipes from anonymous cooks collected from the internet and books. I learned when it was dangerous to be casual: measuring chipotle peppers. And when it was ok to be innovative: spaghetti sauce, soup and omelet fillings.
By the time I made it back to that meatloaf recipe I was fast and casual in my kitchen. Lacking the primary ingredients for a recipe was not a reason to forgo dinner in lieu of a trip to the store. Even family heirlooms like the meatloaf recipe were not to be spared. It all started with the Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, a product my mother and her mother used in every application of salt contained in a savory dish. And I wonder now why I like paprika? I considered myself a salt and pepper cook. What more could you need? So no more seasoned salt, regular salt for me.
And then there was the sloppy onion technique. My mother grated hers on a ceramic grater raw into a hill of pungent pulp just like her mother did. I had no ceramic grater so I blended mine with the egg in an upright blender stabbing the onion between the plunger and the blades of the mixer. Then came the gluten free boyfriend. I blithely subbed oatmeal for the soft wheat breadcrumbs that came before. And after living in New Orleans, I abandoned the regular salt and put in a generous dose of Tony’s Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning. Perhaps I could have gotten away with the improvisation without too much fuss, but at every turn I admitted confessionally. It’s made with instant oatmeal, I would squeal as I placed the casserole dish on the table. My mother reserved judgment but now that the information was out, it could not be ignored by my dad. He couldn’t understand why I would so casually deter from perfection mastered.
When these classics were created there was not a casual way of obtaining directives to an amazing meatloaf. You couldn’t log online to find hundreds of recipes on Pinterest or Epicuricous. You were either given the information from a family member or had to buy the information in a cookbook if your family left you bereft.
This month I made my mother’s meatloaf for 50 adults and children. I may have subbed in some pork for her purist beef method. I guess I couldn’t help myself, it was in the fridge. But, all in all, the meatloaf was my mother’s, and her mother’s before that. I had made more than enough, but I found myself scraping the pan to serve the crumbled pieces I had deemed too imperfect while carving. That was not your ordinary meatloaf, the eaters said, that was extraordinary. Cloves? Someone asked. Yes, I said, It’s my mother’s recipe. I was very proud. My mother’s meatloaf recipe is listed below. You should cook it, it will be great, but I can guarantee, that to to you, it is not as good as your mom’s. My friend who smelled the meatloaf cooking, assures me that his mother’s meatloaf recipe is the best while in the same breath telling me it’s the one off the back of quaker oats box. I have no doubt it is the best. Because maybe the meatloaf you have grown up with, shaped by the hands that raised you, should not be deviated from. Maybe love like that is already well tested.
1 lb. (80/20 is nice) ground beef
1 raw egg
½ c. bread crumbs
1 t. season-all
1 small grated onion
¼ t. cloves
¼ t. allspice
½ can tomato sauce
½ 8 oz. tomato sauce
8 oz. sautéed mushrooms or 1 can mushrooms
¾ c. beef broth
Mix beef with egg and breadcrumbs, seasoning, grated onion, and ½ can of 8 oz. can tomato sauce. Mix gently by hand and form into a loaf shape. Place in a heavy glass or cast iron pan. Combine the rest of the can of tomato sauce and warmed beef broth. Pour over the loaf and scatter the mushrooms around and onto the loaf. Sprinkle with dried oregano. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes.