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
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.
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. 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.