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, lets face it, just dont 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, shed 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 cant really force her to enjoy
it, can I (youll sit there until you finish your meatloaf.
Every last bite. Dont you know that there are people starving
in this world?). No, not Kim, if shes decided shes
not having it, then thats 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. Its not the sort of thing youd
make for one, is it?
Well, Kim is
right now away for a few days. Hah! The perfect opportunity, I realise,
to make meatloaf!
for dinner tonight, Dad? Guy asks me.
I thought Id make [cough, splutter] **%£)loaf.
the teenage boy asks, polite, but clearly concerned (hes 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), Youll 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.
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 doesnt even deign to answer, just makes that famous poo
face which only Bella can display disgust, disdain, stubborn
refusal, pity, all in the merest moments glance.
But I am determined.
Who knows, it may be my only opportunity. Ever. So I go hotfoot around
to Arthurs 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 Richards 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 Mothers
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.
that smell great, kids? I ask.
Guy grunts unenthusiastically.
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 mothers. I slice
it thickly and serve the meatloaf with steamed white rice, broccoli
and tinned sweetcorn. And of course, lots of ketchup.
thinking or even noticing, eats it up quickly, the whole plateful
he is after all a growing fourteen year old, and is always starving.
you like some more? I ask, affecting unconcern and disinterest.
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.
Its just there to be eaten, dammit.
Bella, as you
might guess, is altogether more circumspect, more difficult to please.
Her mothers daughter? She pushes the meatloaf around on her plate,
prods it, eats some rice, finishes her broccoli, pretends to take a
bite (but doesnt really).
I say firmly, youll have to try it. If you dont like
it, thats OK, but you have to at least try it. Otherwise if you
are too full, then you wont be able to manage that banana split,
will you? (There now, in desperation, Ive played my ace...theres
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 its 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, its 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. Dont you
agree? You must agree? What, you dont?! I cant believe it.
Youve got to be kidding. You know, sometimes I think we hardly
live on the same planet. Sometimes I think we dont even speak
the same language...
© Marc Millon 2002