For my grandmother’s generation of Midwesterners, “salad” was a term used very loosely. “Salad” seemed to mean anything that had (or could have) vegetables in it, especially if the medium was Jell-O. A mid-century Midwestern “salad” made the right way was about 50% Jell-O.
I would love to meet the person responsible for the invention of meatloaf. I imagine them looking at a loaf pan saying, “Sure I could put bread in it. Everyone puts bread in it. But, what if I filled it with meat?”
My stepmom insisted that all of her children knew how to make a few basic dishes before going to college. At the very least, we wouldn’t starve. Meatloaf was the dish that fascinated me the most. Every time I see meatloaf on a menu, I smile a little and feel a sentimental urge to order it. I’ve included two recipes for this one. The first is my stepmom’s classic recipe featuring crushed saltines and ketchup.
The second is my “later in life” interpretation, just to show how food inspiration can come from those simple dishes that remind us of home.
What are those dishes that hit home to you?
Floating island is why I am a chef. My father, who is an exceptional cook*, was always in charge of preparing our special occasion meals. Christmas dinner, friends coming over, celebrations – he would turn out some kind of delicious feast without fail. On one such occasion, when a boss was joining us for dinner, my dad once more set off to pull out all the stops. In this instance, the boss happened to have a sweet-tooth. So, in order to pluck at his food soft spot, my dad decided to making floating island for dessert. The dinner preparation was a large undertaking so he enlisted my help. At 12, I would have been just about the right age to start an old world kitchen apprenticeship. In a life changing moment, he slid his copy of Julia Child’s The Way to Cook over to me and pointed to the recipe. I could practically hear Julia’s voice speaking from the pages as she told me that I “must have courage” in preparing the crème anglaise. To this day, that book is sacrosanct among my cooking library.
The recipe above is my recipe, for copyright reasons, not Julia’s. As floating island is extremely simple in its base components, there is little difference between the two.
*Editor’s Note: This is also my father. I can vouch for the truth of this statement.
For many people, eggplant can be an acquired taste. Not many kids eyes will light up at the idea of eggplant for dinner. I was an exception there, because I was introduced to eggplant via my mom’s fried eggplant. Since eggplant has roughly the same absorption abilities as a kitchen sponge, the fried eggplant had little choice but to taste like deep-fried goodness…so, naturally, I loved it.
Even today, when I eat freshly grilled eggplant with nothing more than a brush of olive oil and some rosemary, I reminisce about my mom’s fried eggplant.
I think everyone has had the experience of taking a bite of food that has transported them. That bite of food that takes them mind and soul back to their childhood or to a special place or to a fond memory. Food has that power. All food. Its part of its magic. I can’t eat prosciutto and melon (Recipe Card: PDF – 88kb) without thinking about The Pirates of Penzance, because my first time trying the delectable salty-sweet duo was while watching a movie adaptation of the play. I haven’t seen the movie since (about 20 years now), but I will almost universally be caught humming “Modern Major General” after eating prosciutto and melon.
In the spirit of food’s nostalgic powers, I thought it would be fun to periodically share those recipes that are close to my heart. In some cases, I was able to lay my hands on the very recipe. In others, I have recreated recipes that never fail to invoke warm remembrances of bygone days.
These are my memories, but I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite nostalgic dishes?