(This column originally appeared on the website “An Army of Ermas” in July 2010)
It’s called meatloaf. There are two basic components to it: the meat and the loaf.
Meatloaf is simple: put all of those things into a bowl, mash them, and then transfer the contents from the bowl to a loaf pan, thus creating the … loaf. And don’t THINK we wouldn’t skip the “loaf pan” part if we could. Trust me on this: “giant meatball night” would become a staple in homes across Middle America if women weren’t so nuts about Pampered Chef accoutrements.
Meatloaf is also one of men’s favorite meals because it gives us the chance to tell our moms and wives that we’ve hit all five food groups in one day at least once in our life times: grains (for the torn-up bread pieces), meat (well, duh), vegetables (for the single bell pepper sacrifice), fruits (ketchup!) and dairy (see “bread”).
So, my charge recently was to make a meatloaf dinner. If you’re not aware, an uninterrupted hour in the oven at 400 degrees is as close to “can I just throw this on the grill” as a guy can get. Plus, there aren’t that many moving parts. Save a potential spectacular kitchen fire, a screaming 4-year-old and a greasy pile of dishes, I had this like Edward reeling in Bella with less glitter and more bite.
Or so you’d believe. To use a feted Internet expression …
To be clear the ground beef, chopping, spicing, mashing and loafing all pretty much meet the man-standard for effort and ease. Even calibrating (or, what some might call “turning on”) the oven and waiting for the thing to warm up gives us an opportunity to check the crawl on ESPN. Win-win.
But something happened after I dropped the pan on to the rack and I sped off to brag about this accomplishment to you on Facebook, Twitter and email (because it is the law for men to brag about these things). About 45 minutes later, I checked on it.
By way of reference, if you’re not aware, cold water tends to shrink things on men. So, we’re not keen on cold swimming pools, showers or the Pacific Ocean, and certainly don’t couple any of those things with an audience as we towel off. However, you can imagine my surprise when I pulled the meatloaf pan out and just 75 percent of the thing remained. Shrinkage? Still, it needed to cook another 15 minutes. Back in the oven.
When the buzzer went off, I flew back into the kitchen pulled out the pan. Time to eat. I’m big on presentation. I can turn a cup of Ramen Noodles into an evening dinner in Verona, Italy if you give me enough notice. So, needless to say, I dressed up my wife’s plate and brought it to the table with the pride of a man who knew she would be cutting the cord and naming it “Junior” soon after.
That said, hoards of patrons filling the Roman Coliseum could not have heaped enough praise for what I’d done that evening and, as is tradition when I cook, I waited for my wife to take the first bite. As is the custom within the male tribe, we need to be needlessly praised for any activity that consciously or sub-consciously equals killing the wooly mammoth with a spear. So taking out the trash (especially when we’re not told), dusting and presenting a meatloaf at the dinner table all qualify.
It was, at this point, when my wife raised her fork to her lips that three things immediately came into my mind:
- She’ll love it. Best meal I’ve cooked since … well, since the last time I cooked
- Wait. Is the inside of that thing the right color?
- What’s that smell?
Klaxons sounded and flashing red lights immediately clicked on inside my brain as the first bite hit her tongue and seeped into her taste buds. Fearful, I turned to her and asked what she thought of my creation.
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with my wife’s body English, let me familiarize you with a few gestures. A hands-on-hips stare means I’ve screwed up. Arms drooping, slumped shoulders and a head tilted stare means I’ve screwed up. And, a nod after taking a bite of the dinner I’ve just made means, “You’re trying to kill me with the same poison Juliet gargled before she realized Romeo had a strong investment portfolio and a good paying job, aren’t you?”
I looked down at my own grey-ish slices meatloaf and realized something had gone terribly wrong between “Is it my night to cook?” and the Caesarian-like rejection I’d just received. Anxiety flooded in. Beads of sweat popped out of my forehead like shoppers crowding a 75-percent off sale at Filene’s Bargain Basement.
“You want something else?”
She shook her head.
The universally bad head-shaking gesture sealed my fate as it has sealed so many other husbands fates in the past. She managed one more bite, hauled her plate to the sink and retired for the night. I could have clubbed and cooked Edward and Bella, some baby harp seals or the cast of “Glee” and received a better reaction.
This brings me to why I couldn’t have screwed this up.
Not only did I query many of you for ideas on ingredients (by the way, thanks for the peanut butter and minced kale ideas!), but I followed a recipe – from the Internet, no less – to the tee. I dumped the loaf into proper baking pan on the proper temperature and let that bad boy cook for the EXACT amount of time on the EXACT temperature. Surely, by no means, was this my fault. Really.
So, I’m calling on you, mystery meatloaf ingredient changer who sneaks into locked Bavarian homes in broad daylight with your awful tastes, ability to change temperatures and wreck the lives of middle-class folk.
I mean, that happens, right?