Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Year of Brethren Food: The Great Meatloaf Disaster

When I started making meatloaf based on recipes from my great-grandmother's Brethren cookbook, I was already thinking about writing a blog post about how delicious my meatloaf was and how much  my family raved about it.  Instead, I am choosing to suppress the recipe (heaven forbid someone actually tried to make it!) and I'm sitting down to write about The Great Meatloaf Disaster.

My first attempt at making an "old-fashioned" meatloaf started out ok.  I make meatloaf three or four times a year and it's pretty simple.  I figured all I needed to do was to get the right ratio of wet and dry ingredients and not over-bake it.  Easier said than done.

I looked at five different recipes in my great-grandmother's Inglenook Cookbook and they had a lot of similarities-- ground beef, milk, onion, salt, pepper, bread crumbs.  One included thyme and another suggested using a piece of butter "the size of a walnut".  I decided to incorporate both of these ideas.

Riding high from a recent success with baked beans, I decided to use chili sauce instead of the ketchup or sliced tomatoes that several of the recipes called for.  In retrospect, this was clearly a mistake.

Moving on to the more crucial ingredients, I averaged out the amount of ground beef found in each recipe (2 pounds) and the number of eggs (2 seemed pretty standard).  Most of the cooks used a cup of milk.  Then I added salt, pepper, and onion, which I later realized I'd forgotten to sauté before adding them to the mix.

But things really started to go wrong with the breadcrumbs.  Some recipes called for up to a "large" cup of breadcrumbs.  Others suggested using crackers, as my grandmother always had.  I went with the breadcrumbs because that's what I had in my cabinet.  I used a standard cup, which didn't seem to be nearly enough.  Looking at the liquidly red mess in my mixing bowl, I cavalierly tossed in a generous handful with my "clean" hand and kept stirring the mixture with my "messy" hand.

Next I formed the mixture into a loaf in my grandmother's roasting pan (for good luck) and topped it off with the remains of my bottle of chili sauce (about a quarter cup).  I proudly photographed the raw meatloaf and popped it in the oven, already anticipating the delicious aroma that would soon waft out of my kitchen.
Meatloaf about to go into the oven, Feb. 2011.
I'm not sure when I realized that something was amiss.  It might have been when I saw the lump of unmixed breadcrumbs on one side of the loaf.  It might not have been until I started cutting into it and the slices started to break in half.  Following the advice of the fabulous Julia Child, who said "Never apologize!", I served it up and said nothing about my misgivings to my family.

It wasn't until I started serving the meatloaf that I realized I'd forgotten to take a "beauty shot" of my completed meatloaf.  I was horrified.  And frazzled.  And I had a sneaky suspicion that things were not as they should be.  But I persevered.  I took the meatloaf off the cutting board and plopped it back into the crusty roasting pan (another fatal mistake).  After taking a few blurry photos, I realized I didn't have enough daylight left in the kitchen to take a photograph without flash, so I carried the dried carcass to my daughters' room, which has a bright daylight balanced halogen bulb in the ceiling fixture.

I put a placemat on my daughters' play table and plopped the roasting pan down on top of it.  Then I ran back to the kitchen to get the camera and tripod.  By the time I returned, my daughter had surrounded my meatloaf with a collection of toys and just as I was about to yell at her to get that crap off my table, she waved her hands proudly in front of the display and proudly said, "Mommy, look!  I decorated it for you."

I took a deep breath and choked back my tears.  When I could speak in what I hoped was my usual tone of voice I said, "Thank you, sweetie.  It's beautiful."  I took a photograph and carried our dinner back into the kitchen.  My husband, who had just come home after a long day at the office, happily ate the meatloaf and thought it was "pretty good".  We even ate the leftovers the next day.
Ugly, overcooked meatloaf in the world's most beautiful surroundings, Feb. 2011.