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personal essay

My Mom’s Meatloaf Mixes Americana with Vietnamese Home Cooking

updated May 24, 2021
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My mother is one of those intuitive cooks with a near-mystical instinct for flavor and texture. She can coax melting tenderness out of a cheap cut of meat, balance the bite in a bitter melon soup, and fry a shrimp-and-sweet-potato fritter so its edges crackle — all while shooing her husband out of the kitchen and warning her teenage daughter about the dangers of Daisy Dukes and uninhibited premarital sex. The wrath of God seared through her spatula; the song of the muses rained through her sieve.

With all that culinary prowess, some might say her talents would be wasted on the humble meatloaf, but as a kid, when she asked me what I wanted for dinner, I usually requested that brown-gray suburban staple. She served hers with steamed rice and a tangle of sautéed greens. I wolfed it down, then went back for seconds.

It’s easy to see why meatloaf has fallen in and out of favor over the centuries. The hodge-podge dish is democratic, but it’s not very glamorous. Even the word meatloaf suggests a beast you find hiding in the back of the fridge. Making its first appearance as far back as Medieval Europe, meatloaf soared to popularity in America during the Depression, and it’s been ubiquitous ever since. (Cheesecake Factory’s meatloaf, with its dark onion gravy, is surprisingly good.)

Mom’s meatloaf has a murkier origin story. It started with a glance from a tall, sunburned man in a cafeteria at work, where they both ate dinner. He asked if he could sit at her table. That question spiraled into secret meetings, sharing fries in a dark booth, and strolling the gardening supply shop at a discreet distance. Eventually, the man, my future stepfather G., issued a quiet marriage proposal that Mom, equally quietly, accepted. And just like that, we were a family: part Vietnamese, part Italian, and wholly American. 

We had no handbook for our new blended family, but Mom had a plan. She modeled us after the kind of nuclear unit we watched on evening sitcoms. We bought an overstuffed couch, a Crock-Pot, and plastic vases full of faux sunflowers. The seeds of domesticity had been planted, although the emotional terrain was far less defined.

G. asked me to call him Dad, and I did at first. I’d seen enough episodes of Growing Pains to know that I wanted the nuclear family, too. But G. and I, both accustomed to having things our own way, were uneasy around one another.

For Mom, her wish for a family manifested itself on the dinner table, as if she could cook away our contention. She subscribed to food magazines and began to make dishes she’d never served before: rich fettuccine Alfredo that wreaked havoc on our lactose-intolerant systems, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches soggy from meat juices, a broccoli salad slathered with mayonnaise and pebbled with raisins. The three of us sat in front of our plates, waiting for our lives to converge.

We had no handbook for our new blended family, but Mom had a plan.

Before Mom married G., she and my grandmother made meals from scratch every night, rolling and pounding and simmering their way to dinner. They fried trout in the garage, squatting on stools my grandfather built. They chopped herbs from the garden. Uncles and cousins sometimes dropped by. We didn’t always eat together, but when we did, the meals were loud and wildly satisfying.

In our new, tidy suburban house, Mom and I were undergoing a kind of self-taming. Our meals became controlled, halting, as if scripted in a language we weren’t yet fluent in. Mom’s meatloaf emerged sometime during those fraught days. 

I can’t remember the first time she made it, or where she got the recipe, but I do know that her meatloaf wasn’t typical. She frequently reached for her lifelong Vietnamese cooking staples, even when trying new recipes. She chopped up scallions, and substituted fish sauce for salt. Sometimes, she mixed a bit of pork belly in with her beef. For the ketchup glaze, she snuck in a spoonful of Sriracha, not enough to identify, but just enough to make you wonder.

Her meatloaf felt audacious, even though it wasn’t deliberately gestural. She wasn’t making any kind of cross-cultural stand or trying to elevate the dish in a cheffy way. She just used what she had, melding that which felt most familiar with newly discovered flavors. Her genius sensibility was always one of adaptation: unapologetic and direct. Never precious. And the meatloaf itself was like nothing else I’ve had since: a little funky, sticky-sweet, and robust.

When I asked her for the recipe, she sounded impatient. “I don’t know! I just mixed my own.”

I like that: not writing or creating a recipe, but mixing one together. Meatloaf is one of those symbols of comfort and domesticity, but for me it’s also a taste memory loaded with possibility. What is meatloaf if not an invitation to combine, to turn, to shape? 

After a few months of stilted family dinners, we gave up the ghost. We ate in shifts, taking plates to the backyard, or our bedrooms, or eating with a book propped in front of us. Mom never stopped trying. She cooked for us throughout the years, up until I left for college, then when I came home at the holidays, and later, after I married and had my own daughter.

The meatloaf itself was like nothing else I’ve had since: a little funky, sticky-sweet, and robust.

Last night, I made a version of meatloaf, not unlike hers. I added a handful of fried shallots, a spoonful of fish sauce, tons of black pepper. I mixed it with my hands. There’s something elemental and a little repellant about sticking one’s hands into a pile of cold, raw meat. I swirled ketchup, hoisin, and a slow drip of chili oil for the glaze. While the meatloaf cooked, my daughter and I built a MagnaTile prison for her errant dolls. I thought about how effortless the formation of my own family had been; my husband and I didn’t have to work to build that connection. Our love for each other and my daughter was a silent, unconditional given. I sent a beam of gratitude to my mom, across the miles.

Neither Mom’s meatloaf nor mine will show up on a restaurant menu or in a glossy cookbook. My own daughter, 4 years old and deeply suspicious of anything that has not been frozen before landing on her plate, doesn’t enjoy meatloaf on principle. Her nose crinkles when I wave a forkful in front of her.

“I don’t care for it,” she says, a phrase instilled by her babysitter after one too many ewwwws at mealtime.

“Okay. Maybe someday,” I shrug.

“Maybe never,” she maintains.

Someday, never. We mark time through the meals we share. Over the years, my stepfather G. and I never got close. More often than not, Mom was (and is) our mediator. But once in awhile, he texts me a picture of one of her meals: noodles with thin-sliced beef, caramelized shrimp that hook together on the plate, bánh bao split in the middle. 

“Mom made dinner,” he texts, succinctly.

“Yum,” I text back, a heart emoji punctuating the word that has come to mean so much more. 

Sometimes I remember those early days, when we sat in the dining room under the glow of a plastic chandelier, napkins spread tidily in our laps, squares of meatloaf cooling on the wedding china. We were waiting for something then: an opening or a bridge, something that could transform us from lonely individuals into a family. Meatloaf couldn’t quite accomplish  that, but maybe, despite our stubbornness, it got us a little closer.