Topsham, Devon April 30, 2002 It is often said that Britain and America are two countries divided by a common language. It can certainly be true when it comes to the language of food. Some foods, let’s face it, just don’t translate. Take meatloaf, one of my alltime favorites and the reliable — even stereotypical — homecooked stand-by in a thousand diners (of cinema lore). The very name ‘meatloaf’ to me sounds so, well, so homey and American. Indeed it immediately brings back to me a vivid image of my mother, standing at the counter of our kitchen (wherever that happened to be), mixing with her hands ground beef and pork, seasonings, a beaten egg and a slice or two of white bread soaked in milk, the mixture passing through her fingers again and again with a wet, satisfying squelch as we children look on hungrily. Once suitably blended, she’d pat the mixture firmly into a bread tin, bake it in the oven, and serve the meal always with steamed white rice and a green salad. Of course, dousing the meatloaf with copious amounts of ketchup was de rigueur, and indeed the taste of steamed white rice splattered with ketchup is as part of the food memory as the meatloaf itself. Make no mistake: this was not — is not, never will be — gourmet food in any shape, form or fashion. No one, to my knowledge, has ever claimed that it is. Meatloaf is simply easy, economical, everyday cooking, and no less delicious for that.
Yet to the English ear, it would appear that the homely and harmless word ‘meatloaf’ conjures up, well, go on, YOU tell me what?! This basic food, so innocuous and comforting (perhaps even doubly so to those of us living far from home), grates as foreign and disgusting, even to my own dear wife, who is not normally unreasonable or irrational or prone to bouts of hysteria. Yet this simple American repast is a food, quite frankly, that she absolutely abhors, simply refuses to eat, treating it as if it were poison or dogfood (or even poisoned dogfood). Now I can’t really force her to enjoy it, can I (“you’ll sit there until you finish your meatloaf. Every last bite. Don’t you know that there are people starving in this world?”). No, not Kim, if she’s decided she’s not having it, then that’s it. End of story. So I gave up trying years ago. The rub is, though, that quite unfairly and unreasonably, she has even passed on her loathing to our children. And so meatloaf has been, is, denied to me. It’s not the sort of thing you’d make for one, is it?
Well, Kim is right now away for a few days. Hah! The perfect opportunity, I realise, to make meatloaf!
“What’s for dinner tonight, Dad?” Guy asks me.
“Um, er, I thought I’d make [cough, splutter] **%£)loaf.”
“Pardon?” the teenage boy asks, polite, but clearly concerned (he’s no fool, and I think he caught the “L” word).
So I decide to bite the bullet and face conflict, danger and disharmony straight in the eyes: “Meatloaf,” I say defiantly. Then add (only slightly sotto voce), “You’ll like it, you really will.”
Bella too gets wind that something is up. “What are we having for dinner, Dad?” she asks with feigned nine-year old innocence.
“Meatloaf,” I say, determined to come out of the proverbial meatloaf closet, “with steamed white rice, and lots of ketchup,” I add as a sweetener. She doesn’t even deign to answer, just makes that famous ‘poo’ face which only Bella can display — disgust, disdain, stubborn refusal, pity, all in the merest moment’s glance.
But I am determined. Who knows, it may be my only opportunity. Ever. So I go hotfoot around to Arthur’s Butchers and get a pound and a half of ground steak, a half a pound of ground pork (‘mince’ in other words). I go next door to Richard’s the greengrocer to buy an onion, some celery, a bunch of parsley, a few organic carrots. I chop chop chop, very finely, and I meanwhile soak a couple of slices of Mother’s Pride in milk. The whole lot goes into a big mixing bowl together with a beaten egg, a good pinch of coarse sea salt, lots of coarsely ground black pepper, a generous dash of Lea & Perrins, a generous dash of Kikkoman soy sauce, a knifetip of dried English mustard (my sole concession to Englishness). Then I put Madame Butterfly on loudly, wash my hands and roll up my sleeves, and begin mixing and squelching, happy as a pig in, well, meatloaf.
Into the bread tin, then into a low oven for a couple of hours while I go and pick the kids up from school. On our return home, I can hardly wait to get inside. The smell as I open the door is glorious: the homely, comforting, oh so ordinary, everyday smell of meatloaf.
“Doesn’t that smell great, kids?” I ask.
“Uh huh,” Guy grunts unenthusiastically.
“I had a really big lunch today at school, Daddy,” says Bella.
I take the meatloaf out of the oven and drain off the fat, then turn it out from its tin. It looks just perfect, exactly like my mother’s. I slice it thickly and serve the meatloaf with steamed white rice, broccoli and tinned sweetcorn. And of course, lots of ketchup.
Guy, without thinking or even noticing, eats it up quickly, the whole plateful — he is after all a growing fourteen year old, and is always starving.
“Would you like some more?” I ask, affecting unconcern and disinterest.
“Yes, please,” he says, helping himself to another thick slice. He eats quickly, then asks to be excused, takes his plate up and disappears to his room. Triumph! That is exactly how meatloaf should be eaten: this is not food to discuss or analyse or write essays or books about. It’s just there to be eaten, dammit.
Bella, as you might guess, is altogether more circumspect, more difficult to please. Her mother’s daughter? She pushes the meatloaf around on her plate, prods it, eats some rice, finishes her broccoli, pretends to take a bite (but doesn’t really).
“Bella,” I say firmly, “you’ll have to try it. If you don’t like it, that’s OK, but you have to at least try it. Otherwise if you are too full, then you won’t be able to manage that banana split, will you?” (There now, in desperation, I’ve played my ace...there’s nothing left.)
Reluctantly if surprisingly she does try it (for Bella adores ice cream). I wait tensely for her judgement as the tiny bit of meatloaf rolls around her mouth critically. Then, I can see it in her face as she realises (to her immense and utter surprise) that this is neither poison nor dogfood. Nor, admittedly, is it mushroom risotto, clams in white wine and garlic, or fried calamari (her all-time favorite foods). But it’s not bad all the same, and she manages a good few forkfulls before feigning that she is replete. “Not my ice cream tummy, though,” she adds, just in case I misunderstand.
And so, a victory of sorts, I think I can fairly claim. Admittedly, this was not earth shattering food that you would travel a great distance to enjoy. There were no culinary fireworks for Guy and Bella. Meatloaf, I accept, is not something that my children will ever BEG me to cook them (as they do roast chinese duck or chicken in breadcrumbs). But it was good. It was satisfying. It was eaten. In short, it was a simple everyday family meal. Full stop. Or as we say, Period. Nothing more. Nothing less.
And of course there were leftovers. Wonderful! Leftover meatloaf is one of the greatest foods on earth! Indeed, it’s not going too far to say that the whole point of cooking meatloaf is to have leftovers. To my mind, nothing sounds better — and I really do mean nothing — than a cold leftover meatloaf sandwich, the thick slab of meatloaf slapped between two slices of white bread, and smothered in ketchup. Don’t you agree? You must agree? What, you don’t?! I can’t believe it. You’ve got to be kidding. You know, sometimes I think we hardly live on the same planet. Sometimes I think we don’t even speak the same language...

Copyright © Marc Millon 2002

|Home| |QP New Media| |Kim's Gallery|

Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2002