Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty, hunger and coming to terms with meatloaf

by Terry B on October 15, 2008

Blue cheese and Italian sausage add depth and richness to this ketchup-free meatloaf. Recipe—and ways you can help fight hunger—below.

Today is Blog Action Day. Marc over at the always eclectic, always intriguing Creative Spark first alerted me to this international event in which bloggers were asked to write about poverty from the perspective of their individual blogs.

Writing about food as I do, poverty and hunger seemed like a natural subject to tackle: A staggering 800 million people around the world go to bed hungry every night, one of the most devastating effects of poverty. But then I remembered an article I read in the New York Times last year that led me down a more nuanced path. In “The Class-Consciousness Raiser,” Paul Tough profiles Ruby Payne, a woman who was raised middle class, married into poverty and then, through her husband’s work for the Chicago Board of Trade, found herself socializing with wealthy people. These wildly varied experiences taught her that each group has its own views of life, its own “hidden rules.”

Codifying these rules into a series of books and lectures, Ms. Payne has created a career for herself an educational consultant. She works with school boards, administrators and teachers who work with students living in poverty, helping them better understand their students. She also shows them how to help these students understand the “hidden rules” of the middle class and lift themselves out of poverty.

So what does this have to do with food? One passage in the article stuck with me, describing how each group thinks about food and discusses it: “The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?” As a food blogger, I concern myself primarily with the second and third questions, as we all do. The growing fascination with food in our culture has democratized presentation, making it something we all think about. Growing up, though, the first question mattered most in my house.

I never really thought of us as poor when I was growing up in St. Louis. We lived in a neighborhood surrounded by people just like us, after all, so I had no basis for comparison. Grown-ups worked hard, usually in low-paying, low-skilled jobs. Paychecks stretched for a whole week only if you were careful. That’s just how life was.

And food was respected. Not in the way chefs and food writers, myself included, talk about respecting food, preparing it simply with careful technique and a few perfect ingredients. It was respected in a much more elemental sense. For parents, making sure there was enough food on the table for your family was a matter of pride. And as a kid, you could take as much as you wanted, but if you put it on your plate, you ate it. Food mattered too much to be wasted.

I don’t mean to paint too grim a picture here. There were plenty of picnics and birthday cakes and heaping platters of fried chicken and laughter around the dinner table. There were occasional dinners out too. There was always enough food to eat, and we always had a roof over our heads. We weren’t desperately poor—we were really more working class, sliding in and out of being what is now called the working poor.

There were occasional desperate times, though. Once when my father was out of work, we ate biscuits and gravy three meals a day for a long stretch. You might think this would have put me off biscuits and gravy. Actually, though, I love them and still seek them out in restaurants—especially if we’re traveling in the South—even though I know they won’t live up to my childhood memories of this dish.

I can’t say the same for meatloaf. I know that for practically everyone but me, meatloaf is one of those ultimate comfort foods. For many, it evokes memories of childhood, family and home. Interestingly, for our Brooklyn friend Ronnie Ann, meatloaf conjures up the exotic. Her father was a butcher, so the family routinely dined on beautiful steaks and lamb chops, not ground meat. When she finally tasted meatloaf—in her high school cafeteria, no less—it was a revelation.

But for me growing up, meatloaf just tasted like poor food. Drier than the more honest [and more fun, especially to a kid] hamburger. It didn’t help that my mom dispensed with making bread crumbs and just tore up slices of white bread to mix in with the ground beef; with each little bite of unincorporated bread, you could taste the family food budget being stretched before payday. And I hold this same meatloaf personally responsible for my lifelong low opinion of ketchup. Especially as an ingredient in a recipe—it falls in that same “oh, never mind” category as margarine or miniature marshmallows, as far as I’m concerned.

So what put meatloaf back on my radar screen? A cookbook, Talk with Your Mouth Full: The Hearty Boys Cookbook, by Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, with photos by Laurie Proffitt. They had a meatloaf recipe in it that was not only ketchup-free, but also included blue cheese [interested] and bacon [very interested—what doesn't go well with bacon?]. Frighteningly, the recipe—which serves 6 to 8 people—had half a pound of bacon in it, plus five strips for the top. And 12 ounces of blue cheese, plus a cup of mayonnaise. These boys do not shy away from fat. The more I explored meatloaf recipes, the more I found interesting variations. In the end, I kept the blue cheese [well, some blue cheese], but lost the bacon and the mayo. I also borrowed from other recipes and, as always, added some ideas of my own.

By the way, this recipe is not an attempt to recreate the meager budget stretcher of my childhood. Instead, it’s me trying to come up with a meatloaf that might finally evoke the positive feelings everyone else seems to have on the subject. I think I achieved it.

Terry’s Blue Cheese Meatloaf
Serves 6

1-1/2 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, skin removed
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
1 cup bread crumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten
salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Wash your hands thoroughly. They will be important utensils. Place all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix by hand until everything is well combined. The Hearty Boys warn against overworking the mixture or meatloaf will become “mealy.”

Line a 5-inch by 9-inch glass baking dish with aluminum foil, making sure to leave flaps of foil extending beyond the edges of the baking dish. Spread a thin layer of olive oil on the inside of the foil. Transfer meatloaf mixture into the baking dish, forming a loaf.

Place the meatloaf in the oven on the middle rack and bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meatloaf registers 160ºF. Remove meatloaf from oven and let it rest on a cooling rack for 15 minutes. Using the foil flaps, lift the meatloaf from the baking dish and transfer to serving platter. Working with a spatula, loosen foil and remove. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

So how was it? In a word, delicious. The blue cheese and Italian sausage combined to elevate it, giving it a complexity beyond a mere meaty, burgerish flavor. Yes, I would make it again. In fact, I’m looking forward to a meatloaf sandwich for lunch tomorrow.

Other Notes: Helping fight hunger

In honor of Blog Action Day, here are a few ways you can fight hunger that is so intertwined with poverty and abuse. The first is right here in Chicago.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository. They have their 15th annual Bag Hunger Auction coming up October 22. The gala event celebrates the city’s hospitality and culinary diversity while raising money to feed the more than 500,000 men, women and children in Cook County who turn to the Food Depository for food each year. Chicago’s top chefs prepare savory creations, and live and silent auctions offer travel packages, gift certificates and other prizes. And if you can’t make this event, the Greater Chicago Food Depository needs volunteers year ’round. Individuals and organizations can spend just a few hours packing donated food into boxes for distribution to families in need. We’ve done this through Marion’s workplace, and it was rewarding and fun. Find out more at The Greater Chicago Food Depository website.

New York’s City Harvest. Not to be outdone by Chicago, this New York organization is hosting Bid Against Hunger on October 21. Each year, millions of pounds of good, edible food are thrown away by New York food businesses. City Harvest will rescue 20 million pounds of that food this year from all segments of the food industry—including restaurants, manufacturers, wholesalers, greenmarkets, hotels, corporate cafeterias, grocery stores and farms—and deliver it to more than 600 community food programs throughout the five boroughs using a fleet of 16 trucks and volunteers on foot. Each week, City Harvest helps over 260,000 hungry New Yorkers find their next meal. Besides attending the event, you’ll find a number of ways to get involved on the City Harvest website.

Drop in & Decorate

Drop In & Decorate. And finally, a fun event you can organize yourself, wherever you are, whenever you like. It’s a simple concept: Bake some cookies, invite friends or family [or neighbors or co-workers] to drop by and help decorate, then donate your cookies to a local food pantry, emergency shelter, senior center, lunch program or other community agency serving neighbors in need. Fellow blogger and food writer Lydia Walshin of The Perfect Pantry founded the non-profit organization that operates Drop In & Decorate. You’ll find all the ideas, support and advice you need to run your own event—even how to find organizations in your area to put the cookies you create to good use—at the Drop In & Decorate website.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

canarygirl October 15, 2008 at 8:59 am

What a beautiful, thought provoking post, Terry. I especially liked the “hidden rules” and views of food according to class. Apart from that–your meatloaf sounds heavenly! I think I’d probably throw a few sauteed shrooms in there, too. :)

Carolyn October 15, 2008 at 3:50 pm

I, too, liked the essay. I remember my mother tearing up bread to stretch a recipe, but she also added bread to a can of tomatoes, calling it “stewed tomatoes” and serving it as if it were heaven itself, with its doughy white pillows strutting about on top of the pot. errrrrrrrrrr

Did you know that October 14 was World Food Day? http://www.efsa.europa.eu/EFSA/efsa_locale-1178620753812_1211902127685.htm

Ronnie Ann October 15, 2008 at 3:51 pm

A wonderful post Terry B. on so many levels! Thanks for the great perspective on hunger and the links. And of course I admire the company you keep. Ahem.

Big smile on my face. So you liked the meatloaf, eh? YAY! Looks like you achieved that “crunchy” crust and moist, varied texture I so love. Garlic and hot peppers and blue cheese…oh my! My mouth is watering…unfortunately at a distance. And I’m betting the sandwich is terrific too. Enjoy.

Ronnie Ann

Terry B October 15, 2008 at 4:48 pm

How funny, canarygirl! Mushrooms were one of the things I considered adding to this meatloaf. I think they would be a great addition.

Thanks, Carolyn! No, I hadn’t heard about World Food Day. How timely that their discussion this year centered on the health implications of climate change. Thanks for the link!

Ronnie Ann—So glad you made it to Chicago. Yes, I finally liked some meatloaf. It’s almost lunchtime now, and I’m getting ready to like the sandwich too.

altadenahiker October 15, 2008 at 6:07 pm

Lovely post, as always. And lovely recipe. Blue cheese is one of my favorite food groups.

Marc October 16, 2008 at 5:24 am

Hi Terry

Wow, I have to agree with canarygirl… a beautiful observation about food and class and a lovely article to read.
My meatloaf is a ketchup version, so I probably don’t know what I’ve been missing out on. I’ll try this one and report back.
The great thing, I think, is that other than the blue cheese it doesn’t look like a particularly expensive dish to make… which shows that wonderful food isn’t necessarily about spending a lot.
=) Marc

susan c October 17, 2008 at 5:26 am

Thanks for the thought provoking essay and the meatloaf recipe. I hosted a “comfort party” in February and auditioned several meatloaf recipes. I wish I had known about this one. It sounds like the ultimate.

altadenahiker October 17, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Well Susan, I just might drive a slice over to you. I’m trying it this weekend. Still have to get the parsley (farmers) and I bought cajun sausage rather than italian by mistake. Probably should get the italian, non?

Terry B October 17, 2008 at 11:37 pm

susan c—Thanks! And what a great idea for a party! I just found your post about your “take comfort” party—may have to try one of those myself!

altadenahiker—What the Italian sausage did was add a little heat and give the meatloaf a more interesting flavor than just “hamburger.” I think the cajun sausage would do that in spades. Stick with it and let me know how it turns out!

Melissa October 18, 2008 at 1:16 am

Hi Terry, It was good to see you at the cafe last weekend. I just subscribed to your blog. Wow! And I thought I was the only one who hated meatloaf!! Hamburger mixed with bread & ketchup & cooked welldone, or burnt beyond recognition if my mom was making it!! I gave it another about 10 years ago when I found a recipe with bacon in it. I, too, thought bacon, would definitely make it better, as “everything is better with bacon” being my motto! Plus it had mustard in it, too. A much better condiment than ketchup. But, alas, that meatloaf sucked too! Now, your recipe sounds amazing. I just might give it another go if I can ever find the time. I bet the blue cheese, yum, gives it a whole nother dimension, plus the Italian sausage. What a great idea! That will take it out of the overcooked hamburger realm. Hmmmm, meatloaf sandwiches, sounds like a great cafe special to me! We’d give you full credit of course :)

Toni October 18, 2008 at 4:56 am

As always, a beautifully written post, Terry. Every year I donate a week of my services to feed the homeless here in San Diego. In exchange for a bag of non-perishable food items, I will give someone an acupuncture treatment. The food is given to the San Diego Food Bank, and it always makes me feel good to know that I can make a difference.

As for meatloaf – its so funny how our childhood memories are so entwined with this dish – probably more than any other, except mac and cheese, perhaps. In my family, if it had ketchup on it, my mom called it “skednick”. Don’t ask. I have no idea where that came from, except for a genetic predisposition to play with words as if they were family pets. I don’t believe I ever made meatloaf until I had my husband’s version of it. Perhaps I’ll post that one some day.

This meatloaf looks like the uber-meatloaf of all times! I’d be willing to bet that the sandwich was out of this world, too!

altadenahiker October 18, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Reporting back, sir. I can’t keep my hands off the finished product, and I know it’s like 2 billion calories. Just a couple of things: don’ use cajun sausage, would have been better w/your italian. I mandolined some carrots and celery in there, which was good. I topped with sliced serrano peppers, not a great idea. I used expensive blue cheese, and I think pre-crumbled cheap stuff would have been fine.

diva October 19, 2008 at 4:43 pm

beautiful meatloaf, terry and what a meaningful blog event. i gotta say my family wasn’t always middle class..and as a kid, respecting food was definitely a massive thing for us. every grain of rice had to polished off and nothing was wasted. i hope the same attitude carries on in others, myself and my children in the future!

evi October 19, 2008 at 9:44 pm

What a thought provoking post on so many topics.

The second half my childhood was spent in a middle class family living in an upper class community once we moved out of NYC. What we ate changed dramatically with that move. The foods that were available in our East Village multi immigrant neighborhood were nowhere to be found in the suburbs. Food definitely equaled assimilation – and it was a depressing experience and almost made me feel funny/ashamed about how we were different in that way.
Now that I am back in the City, my son goes out to eat with us at least once a week. When I was growing up in a family of five kids – I have NO memory of us ever going out as an entire family. We got take out chinese food a few times a year – and that was it. Going out was eating huge meals at my Italian grandmother’s home every sunday in NYC. How many people have Sunday dinners together anymore? A sad loss.

Terry B October 20, 2008 at 3:24 am

Thanks, Melissa! The cafe of which she speaks is Vella Cafe, a recent favorite spot of ours that’s open for breakfast and lunch only [although Melissa says they're going to start doing dinner soon!]. It’s tucked under the Blue Line’s Western el stop and serves a wonderfully eclectic menu for not much money. The staff is great too—smart and friendly.

Toni—Once again you inspire me. What a great way to encourage giving and helping.

altadenahiker—Thanks for reporting back! I’m glad you liked the meatloaf, and the celery and carrots sound like an excellent addition.

diva—You’re right. Try as we may to not be wasteful, we on occasion end up throwing things out that we bought with the best of intentions, and it always troubles me when we do.

evi—Yeah, our family dinners out were definitely few and far between, and then it was to little chop suey joints or burger places. I only experienced “white tablecloth” dining as a grownup. Regarding Sunday dinners, we’ve tried to reinstate them at least once a month—sometimes with family only and sometimes with guests. Whenever we manage to put a dinner together, we’re always glad we did.

David October 30, 2008 at 2:59 pm

Terry – Nicely done. One of my indelible memories from college was an otherwise underwhelming sociology course. The instructor opined that you food was an indicator of class. This was back in the late 70s when the idea of “class” distinctions was still somewhat in favor in the South. Anyway, this professor told us that the lower classes valued quantity, middle classes valued quality and upper classes valued presentation in food. My wife and I still bring that up from time to time when we find ourselves ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ over a particularly fine presentation at a restaurant. We’ll eat comfort food when we go out just as often as something that’s spectacularly presented, but the memory of that sociology class returns more often when we’re enjoying the latter.

On another note, have you tried Alton Brown’s meatloaf recipe? The recipe itself is good, but the trick he uses to cook it is worth the read. he “builds” the meatloaf in a bread pan, then turns it upside down onto a rack on a cookie sheet. The rack holds the loaf off the pan and allows the juices to drip out. To me, this means I can add a higher content of pork and I can cook the meatloaf for a shorter time and it still comes out juicy and delicious.

I found the recipe on the Food Network site here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/good-eats-meat-loaf-recipe2/index.html. But it doesn’t mention the rack. If you watch the old episode, it has the rack. Enjoy.

Terry B October 30, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Thanks, Donald! Even if your socilogoy teacher was less than stellar, if he/she said one thing that sticks with you years later, that’s a decent legacy to have. I haven’t tried Alton Brown’s meatloaf recipe. It sounds pretty good, though, even if he does include ketchup. The use of cumin and chili powder is particularly intriguing.

Meatloaf Recipe April 27, 2009 at 6:24 pm

I have been on a quest for years to find the meatloaf recipe that will make meatloaf seem like comfort instead of just what my parents could afford to put on the table. I’ve tried everything from potato coatings to stuffing my meatloaf with cheese and spinach (the cheese and spinach were excellent). I can’t wait to try your recipe. Thanks so much for posting!

Terry B April 27, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Looking forward to hearing what you think, Meatloaf Recipe!

Lizzie September 22, 2009 at 11:33 pm

I found this post a few days ago and liked the simplicity of the recipe. Not having enough blue cheese, I made it with what blue cheese I had, a teensy bit of feta that wasn’t enough for anything else, plus a few shards of over-the-hill parmesan. All in all, delicious.

Terry B September 23, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Lizzie—Wow! Your version sounds delicious. And perfectly in keeping with the spirit of meatloaf, being economical and not letting food go to waste.

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