Meeting his family for the first time was more than nerve-wracking. I was being introduced to a family by their only son, introduced as his future wife. And I would be spending an afternoon, the time of a long meal, immersed in French conversation, a language I barely mastered, if at all.
His meeting my family for the first time must have been just as trying. We had married after a whirlwind courtship, if one could even possibly call it a courtship, married and had a baby. He would meet my mother and brothers for the first time around a cradle.
My future mother-in-law had made lunch. Although that meal was close to thirty years ago, I can certainly guess that she made meat of some kind. Meat made a star-studded appearance at every single lunch in her home, beef, veal or chicken if not liver or rabbit, often preceded by a slice of meaty pâté. A hardy, filling, hot lunch every single day. A garlic-studded roast beef sizzling with margarine, a chicken, fragrant and deeply golden, the skin crisp, the meat tender. Or stewed, a veal blanquette, pale pink meat and bright orange carrot wedges in a thick white sauce.
Meet we did. He my family, me his. How many meals have we all shared since?
Meat and two veg.
Meatloaf, dense and heavy, ground meat packed into the shape of a loaf cake yet much less tempting, much less savory. Certainly not tempting. No, my mother's meatloaf was anything but.
Meatloaf, the symbol of my mother's lack of culinary skills and interest, the emblem of a culinary era in which I grew up, raised on substantial, meat-heavy meals. A slice of meatloaf – at school we would fondly refer to something eerily similar as "mystery meat" – would lie on the plate between the helping of mashed potatoes and the scoop of green beans, canned, naturally – lie on the plate rather grey, dry and forlorn, just begging for ketchup. Flecks of green pepper and onion would taunt me with their ineffectiveness, laugh at me for being obliged to eat meat in this form, this fashion, this uninteresting, unappetizing, unseasoned semblance.
Ground burger was the meat of choice in the Sixties and Seventies. Packed into patties to be served on a bun, slathered with plenty of condiment or stuffed with a slice of yellow cheese and spaghetti sauce before being placed in the pan, a Surprise Burger; tossed with the ingredients of a packet and a can, heated and simmered in a skillet and served over squiggly little pasta shapes; stuffed into taco shells dripping with spicy salsa; Swedish meatballs, sweet and sour. Better was Saturday night when dad would take meat in its more genteel, refined rather urbane form of T-bone steak, one for each of his hungry family, chucked onto the grill until charred.
One of my husband's rare trips to the States, down to Florida and a meal at my brother's. My sister-in-law, an excellent cook, places a platter in the center of the table, tickled pink, a platter groaning under the weight and heft of a meatloaf, a platter nestled in between the bowl of mashed potatoes and the dish of green beans. "Just like your mother always made!" she exclaims, beaming with generosity. My husband balks. American cuisine.
One man's meat is another man's poison.
Rabbits still dressed in their fluffy pelts, whole pigs' heads as naked as the day they were born nestled in between the chops and the sausages, cubes of meat, veal, beef, chicken, glistening in some choice marinade or sauce, threaded on sticks just waiting for a grill in someone's garden, trussed chickens in pale pink, Easter yellow or deep hued the color of wood pressed together in rows, clawed feet, beaked and crested head tucked prettily under wings, a French butcher's case is like no other.
Years working in a professional cooking school, I loved walking through the courtyard and peeping into the special sections' classrooms, the bakery with its roaring ovens and trays with rows of baguettes or pastry with its rows of concentrated students in white steadily piping out choux or rosettes. But the butchery students never ceased to amaze me. Young men (mostly) and young women (few) decked out in identical blue aprons with one strap up and over one shoulder only, the better to protect the whites when hefting a carcass across a shop or market. Young men and women, knives in hand, leaning over slabs of meat, muscle, bone and flesh, and with a mix of brawn and finesse, force and delicacy, they learned to slice and carve, cleave and plume. An elegant dance immersed in centuries of tradition.
“Don’t take a butcher’s advice on how to cook meat. If he knew, he’d be a chef.” - Andy Rooney
White meat, dark meat.
Once long ago when my babies were but tots, another mother of small children made the statement to a roomful of like souls “I’ll bet that we all give our children the white meat pieces of chicken because there are no bones.” As if the offering of the white meat to our darling and fragile children was a prodigious sacrifice of the motherly kind. As if white meat was better than dark, more flavorful and succulent, and thus the most desired, that self-denial a sign of motherly worth bordering on the saintly simply out of concern for our offspring. And all of the other mothers smiled angelically and nodded their haloed heads in unison. I chuckled and, smiling serenely, shook my head. “No,” I admitted boldly, no sign of shame on my face, no waver of apology in my words, “I give my children the white meat because I prefer the dark myself.”
My own halo has long been tarnished and worn slightly askew. When I can get away with using only dark meat in a recipe, I do. A baking dish of lemon chicken for a wedding; hot and spicy breaded thighs for company; curries and tagines for a weeknight family meal. Only when the boys were old enough to voice an opinion, articulate a disagreement, did I throw in meat of the white persuasion. Four thighs, two breasts, please, all in the name of pleasing my men.
“Gourmets! Serve the bird roasted, with pink feet, a strip of bacon to cover its modesty, the breast sprinkled with lemon drops.” - Charles Monselet
This is such a great way of making meatballs in tomato sauce, a true no-fuss dish because all you have to do is roll the meat into small balls and then drop them straight into the tomato sauce without frying, then just leaving them to simmer for about an hour all on their own. Apart from the occasional stirring now and then. This recipe is how I prepare meatballs, but see it as an outline on a canvas and fill in the empty spaces with your own signature, add herbs and/or spices that you like to the meat or anything that you think would be good. I do it this way, you do it your way! The recipe is for 8 servings, but I recommend preparing the whole amount given in the recipe even if you are not serving 8 - make enough for leftovers - because they are even better the day after!
ILVA'S ITALIAN MEATBALLS IN TOMATO SAUCE
1000 g/ 2.2 lb minced meat
2 small eggs
50 g/ 1.75 oz grated parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small onion
1000 ml/ 4 1/4 cups tomato sauce
extra-virgin olive oil
Chop the onion finely and cook in some olive oil in a large pan for a few minutes. Add the tomato sauce, add some salt and check if the sauce is too acid, if so add half a teaspoon (or more if needed) sugar. Bring it to a simmer.
Meanwhile mix the minced meat with eggs, parmesan, salt and black pepper. Taste to see of more salt is needed. Start rolling the meat into small balls that you drop into the tomato sauce as you go along. Once finished, bring to a simmer and leave it simmering for about an hour with a half closed lid on top. Stir now and then.