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."

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