What Southern Folks Eat: Comfort food for uncomfortable times
"Comfort food is the food that makes us feel good - satisfied, calm, cared for and carefree. It’s food that fills us up emotionally and physically. …Finding comfort in food is a basic human experience." - Ellie Krueger
Meatloaf is a simple, comforting, yet polarizing food; people seem either to love it or hate it. I love it. I’m not sure why people would have anti-meatloaf feelings. Is it because it sounds strange... it has the word “loaf” in it, which is admittedly not the most elegant-sounding way to serve meat.
It isn’t the most sophisticated, modern dish one can make, honestly. It conjures images of an apron-wearing 1930s housewife, doesn’t it? Old-fashioned, outdated, passé. It is a food borne of the Depression era, when housewives needed ways to stretch a pound of ground beef to feed their hungry families. Meatloaf was, and is, simple, hearty, and slightly different from kitchen to kitchen.
For me, passé or not, meatloaf is one of my favorite comfort foods, and my mother’s was the best. I don’t think that she had a recipe, to be honest; she made it by eye, the way some musicians play lovely songs by ear. I remember watching her make it: chopping the onion, making the breadcrumbs, cracking the eggs, digging her hands into the fresh ground beef. Then she’d use ketchup to make a sauce to pour over the top of it after she had formed it into a loaf in a baking dish. She’d bake that simple entree, and make mashed potatoes and green beans to accompany it while it was in the oven. It was homestyle perfection.
My granddaddy made a fancier meatloaf than mom made, if meatloaf can be fancy. He would use both ground beef and ground pork, and I believe he used more breadcrumbs than mama did, because his meatloaf held together better than hers. She would get so mad when her meatloaf slices would fall apart. It makes me smile to think about it; she would fuss, but I would always tell her, honestly so, that I preferred her more tender meatloaf that sometimes fell apart to granddaddy’s firm, more dry meatloaf. She was always glad to hear that, but she was still mad it didn’t stay together like she wanted it to.
As much as I enjoyed mom’s meatloaf for dinner with potatoes and green beans, my favorite concoction was the second-day meatloaf sandwich. Again, it’s not at all fancy: White bread. Duke’s mayonnaise. Heinz ketchup. Leftover meatloaf slice. Done! When you took a bite of the gloriously simple sandwich, a chunk of meatloaf could be expected to fall onto your lap, but it was so good, you just didn’t care.
I am a fan of Rick Bragg’s latest book, The Best Cook in the World, about the simple, wonderful cooking of the women in his family. One chapter tells how the family recipe came about, during the birth of his aunt, when a woman, married to a cousin somewhere along the line, came to the house to cook for the family while the new mama recuperated. Her name was Maudie, but like we do in the South, she had been given a nickname: Sis.
Sis was a large woman who stomped around the small house, but little 8-year-old Edna remembers watching her as she entered the kitchen and began to cook, Bragg says. She became as graceful as a dancer when she entered the kitchen, effortlessly sliding pans into the oven and pots across the stovetop. She made food that would fortify the new young mother, as well as her hungry family. She made buttery green peas, creamy scalloped potatoes, and the star of the simple, wholesome show: meatloaf.
My sister and I made his family recipe for meatloaf one day, to see how it stacked up to mama’s and granddaddy’s meatloaves. The recipe is unique in that she didn’t use eggs or milk to create it, which left me skeptical. I have to say, though, it was quite wonderful. We were surprised that it wasn’t dry, and it had a great flavor. I did alter it a bit, as I only had a pound of ground beef, while she used a pound and a half, and I skipped the green bell pepper, as I didn’t have any and I’m not a huge fan of it in this dish, anyway.
Here’s how I made it:
- 5 or 6 slices of white bread, torn into four or five pieces each
- 1 pound of ground chuck
- 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
- 1/2 large white onion, minced
- pinch of chili powder (I used ancho)
- 3/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon minced garlic or garlic powder
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour about a tablespoon olive or vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet.
In a mixing bowl mix together the meat and bread pieces. Knead the bread into the meat until you can no longer see the white pieces of bread in the meat. It should all look like meat when you’re finished.
Next, add the garlic, onion, salt, pepper, tomato paste and chili powder. Knead well to incorporate all the additions uniformly into the meat.
Form the meat into a loaf shape, and spread another tablespoon of tomato paste over the top of it. Place it into the oiled skillet. Bake 40-45 minutes. Then remove the skillet from the oven, and allow the meatloaf to set for about 10 minutes.
Slice into one-inch slices, and, if you’re like me, use a bit of ketchup for dipping bites of it into. Enjoy!
In case you’d like to make scalloped potatoes to accompany this meatloaf, here’s a recipe I enjoy which is so much better than the boxed kind, in my opinion.
Creamy Scalloped Potatoes
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 1/4 pounds red or other waxy-style potato
- 2 cups half-and-half
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Pinch nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub the garlic around the inside of an 8-inch by 8-inch casserole dish or an 8-inch iron skillet, and let it dry. Reserve the remaining garlic. Rub the butter around the inside of the dish. Reserve the remaining butter.
Boil potatoes whole in a large pot until done, about 25 minutes. Don’t overcook. If the potatoes are small, you will likely need to shorten this cooking time.
In a medium saucepan, combine the garlic, butter, half-and-half, salt, pepper to taste, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring continually, about five minutes.
Put about 1/2 cup cold milk in a bowl; add about 1/4 cup of plain flour. Whisk until no longer lumpy. Add to the hot half-and-half mixture in the pot, continually whisking to keep the mixture smooth. When it is the consistency of a good gravy, remove from heat immediately.
Peel the boiled potatoes, being careful not to burn yourself. Slice them into 1/3 inch thick slices and begin layering in a two-quart casserole dish: a bit of sauce on the bottom of dish, then a layer of potatoes, then a layer of sauce, then potatoes, then finish with sauce on top.
Bake the potatoes, basting occasionally, until lightly browned and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
I highly recommend any of Bragg’s books as quality reading material as you wait for dinner to bake, or for reading later as you let your dinner go down while you sit in a comfortable chair. You will likely recognize many of the characters as being similar to people you’ve known growing up in the small-town South! I enjoy them very much, and I hope you will, too.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.