Friday, March 18, 2011

In Defense of Meatloaf

It is a nightly source of frustration that our preschooler, the child of two foodies, refuses to eat most anything but macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and grapes. Tonight, I labored over lobster and asparagus risotto, patiently stirring up a minor masterpiece, only to watch my child stare blankly at her plate and sit with an unchewed piece of delicious, buttery lobster in her mouth for twenty minutes.

Every night, I use my best negotiation skills to get something other than noodles into my child's stomach. I am not above pleading or bribery or threats, but even with my best tactics, dinner generally becomes a forty-five-minute showdown.

There are a few exceptions to this battle of wills. Cheesy pasta is one. Grilled cheese is another. Any of the usual childhood fare generally goes down pretty easily. But remarkably, the grown-up food that always disappears from her little pink plate is one that often frightens off the actual grown-ups: meatloaf.

The word "meatloaf" sounds slightly horrific. A "loaf of bread" brings to mind an aromatic, butter-slathered treat. But a "loaf of meat" sounds ghastly, a lump of dry crumbly hamburger served as a method of torture, probably alongside some manner of wilted Brussels sprout or other scary vegetable.

In reality, meatloaf made right is the best kind of comfort food. Mine, made with tomato sauce and rolled around a generous helping of cheese, is my grandma's recipe. Every time I make it, I feel like I'm channeling the finer elements of domesticity: hearty meals around a crowded table, setting the foundation for childhood memories of full bellies and lively discussions. Maybe it's my Midwestern heart, but the familiarity of meat and potatoes, particularly in the form of a warm, melty meatloaf and a-little-lumpy mashed potatoes, makes me feel at home in a way that few other foods can.

If you have been long separated from meatloaf, I encourage you to give it another chance. It is not fancy, or sophisticated, and we all eat ours slathered in ketchup, but you might be surprised at how un-frightening it can be. Just ask my three-year-old. It is on her short list of "best foods ever."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Evolving History of Food with Friends

I am not alone, as a wife and mother in my early 30s, in feeling very much defined by those two roles. Although I do work full-time at a job I love, many of my thoughts and most of my evenings are taken hostage, albeit willingly, by the needs of two adorable children and one fantastic husband.

Every once in a while, however, I glimpse a flash of my life pre-family and yearn, just a little bit, for the days when Saturdays were completely mine, when leaving the house was a 30-second grab-the-purse-and-go affair, when more books were read than gathered dust, rather than vice versa.

A never-fail remedy for this lapse into "where did my 20s go?" nostalgia is a night out with my high school girlfriends. Many women, I think, have some version of this group: a handful of women you have known since junior high or high school or college who, despite gaps in your friendship due to distance or life changes, remain a cherished link to a time when you began the slow move out of childhood.

We do not meet up often, simply because of the inevitable busyness of our lives, but when we do, it is a gathering of several hours over a meal at a restaurant or our homes that always leaves me feeling both slightly older and slightly younger. These are women that I have known for almost 20 years. Back then, we were girls navigating the labyrinth of high school as a herd, following a similar path that would quickly diverge after graduation. Now, some of us are wives, some of us are mothers, all of us are working in different careers, and all of us have settled back in our home state, after some detours along the way.

The other night, after we all gathered at Chef Matt's restaurant, I thought about all the meals that I have shared with these women throughout my life and how those meals changed as we did. In junior high, we consumed untold amounts of pizza and Coke in our parents' basements. In high school, we spent hours at Bakers Square and Perkins, eating chicken strips and pancakes and likely irritating every other patron in the store with our nonstop laughing at nonsense. In college, we ate handfuls of Doritos to balance out the beer.

Now, although more grown-up and slightly more subdued, we still get together around dinner tables. We eat at nicer restaurants now, or potluck in our own dining rooms, but the spirit of our gathering is still the same. We all have the grown-up lives we never thought would come, but manage to maintain the connections that brought us together when we were young.

I would not trade my life or my family to have those younger years back, even for a day, but I love that I, and a half-dozen of my oldest friends, can still conjure them up in our 30s version of the Perkins camp-out. In 50 years, as we are sharing half-sandwiches at our 4:00 dinners, I believe those younger years will still be alive for all of us.