Some days, American ex-patriots just want “comfort food”. Although the genre may be wide open for interpretation, when you live abroad and find that your idea of comfort food matches another's, well, you might just be looking at a new friend...or three!
Although my cravings for familiar foods from another life have dwindled, a few old standards still hold me in their grip. At dinner a few weeks ago with friends Nathalie and Wayne, Wayne had prepared meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I couldn’t have been more pleased about a menu had I been sitting down to a reservation at E Bulli! (Okay, okay...maybe that's an "apples and oranges" kind of thing...but I was pleased.) Simple and satisfying, and usually coming from some old family recipe (Wayne uses his mother’s recipe), meatloaf is recognized throughout the United States as a classic when it comes to “comfort food”.
Not long after this, another friend and I were surprised to discover that we were baking banana bread at about the same time (something not often seen in France). Our culinary discussion led to another discovery: we shared a love of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She implored me to come over and cook it for her and the children one evening when her husband was traveling for his consulting business.
I was coming out of a cold and still feeling a bit funky around the edges. My new friend had been a single parent for a week due to an out-of-town-on-business husband who usually does the cooking (and this man can cook, I’m telling you!). Her daughter had just lost her first tooth. And her son, well...it was just another Friday night for an “almost” 11 year old. Comfort food seemed just the ticket for all of us.
Family style around the table, we piled up helpings of the meatloaf and mashed potato feast. Lost momentarily in a flash of events from decades past when this was served for dinner, I saw an 11 year old girl who had just had her braces tightened...and then two little girls sharing some private giggle as they waited for the meal to be brought to the table in the dim light of an early autumn evening...and then a flurry of sensations about when there had been a loss or an upset...somehow, meatloaf just made things "right" if they hadn’t been - and better if they were already chugging along.
I was bumped from my reverie as forks hit plates. The discussion turned to much more pertinent matters: Six year old Olivia's first tooth loss - and we were given all of the details of exactly how it had come to pass earlier in the day. I was also filled in on the tradition in France as to who it is that sneaks under the pillows of children in the dark of night to retrieve the tooth in exchange for a small offering of money: La Petite Souris! No Tooth Fairies for the French children. No, “souris”! It's a little mouse with magical powers who comes in for the tidbit of cheese left as an offering (and enticement, I suppose) and leaves some “scratch” (and apparently sometimes a note) for the effort.
Big brother Daniel was the trusted coach for the auspicious visit as Olivia prepared her tooth in the pocket of La Petite Souris and tucked it under her pillow for retrieval. That ritual pretty much became the main event around which the world revolved for the evening.
In the midst of reflecting upon the more profound aspects of meatloaf and musing on its universal popularity among Americans, I was reminded of how unfeasible it is to be enveloped in one’s own thoughts or events (be they worthy of celebration or solace) when there are children around as their discoveries of details long forgotten by adults remain new and exciting and their demand to have everyone involved in their process is a “given” in child-centered families. It seems impossible not to share in the delicious delight of new wonders...in this case, the first visit from the “Little Tooth Mouse”!
Written on a small page from a quirky notepad that was given to me when I was in college, this recipe for meatloaf is from my aunt...or so we think...and thus the name: “Aunties Meatloaf”
Although my aunt doesn’t remember this as her recipe, my mother gave her older sister all the credit for my favorite comfort food...and that works for me.
(And you can see the value I give to meatloaf when you discover that it is affixed to the same page in my recipe collection notebook as a recipe for Sierra Steak Roast from a California winery and on the back of this page: Brandy Prime Rib and a recipe for New York Dijon Steak from the NY Times...starts to explain that E Bulli comment, doesn't it?! My meatloaf keeps good company.)
Pre-heat oven 350º
1 cup milk
1 cup oatmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon mustard
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 lb. ground beef
catsup for topping
In a medium mixing bowl, mix together first 9 ingredients. Let sit for 5 minutes to absorb. Add ground beef and mix well. Put into greased loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Top with catsup for another 15 minutes. Allow to cool a bit. Slice and serve.
Serves 6 to 8