Meat Up: Kitchen Stories

July 15, 2012

illustration by Cy de Groat
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Eighteen 

HERE AT MEATPAPER, we’ve always been interested in the relationship between taste and memory. For this installment of “Meat Up,” we requested stories about the powerful memories that specific meaty flavors evoke, and the recipes associated with those flavors. Our inbox was inundated with nostalgia: sense memories of grandparents and exes, stories thick with the vapor of simmering sauce that fogs the windowpanes of recollection. It was a challenge to winnow them down, but here is a sampling.

I used to joke that I was married to Daniel Boone, someone who kept us supplied with fresh venison and salmon from our fishing boat. Friends would stop by to visit and knowingly bring their own burgers from McDonald’s, even though my husband was generous and willing to go out to the garage and slice off backstrap (the best cut) from the most recent deer he’d hung from the rafters. He knew how to cure the meat so that it never tasted gamey. I just wished he’d thought to bring it inside wrapped in paper, or even a bowl, when there were guests present. He was known to just carry it in his hand, blood dripping a path to the kitchen counter.

My daughter called store-bought meat “gutty.” After some bad venison at someone else’s house, her mantra at age four became,“I’m a vegetarian unless Daddy kills it.”

But things happen — mistakes were made, as they say — and we eventually divorced. As part of my child support payment, I get freezer boxes of venison and salmon every year. When the shipment arrives, I pull out my dank and weathered copy of Cooking Alaskan, glad that I no longer have to read the section about how to “butcher at home.” The venison arrives wrapped in freezer paper, labeled and dated. When I’m feeling sentimental, I think about the trail of blood and can’t help but remember how much work goes into feeding a family and keeping them happy.

As part of my child support payment, I get freezer boxes of venison and salmon every year.

Cranberry Meat Loaf from Cooking Alaskan
Courtesy of Mrs. Aline Strutz

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cranberry sauce
1 1/2 pounds ground venison, moose, or caribou
1/2 pound ground smoked ham (store bought)
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup whole lowbush cranberries
3/4 cup cracker crumbs
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons diced onion
3 bay leaves

Spread sugar over bottom of greased loaf pan. Mash cranberry sauce and spread over sugar. Combine remaining ingredients except bay leaves. shape into a loaf and place in pan. Place bay leaves on top of loaf. Bake for one hour at 350°F (175°C, for our Canadian neighbors). Remove bay leaves before serving.

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Public radio reporter


I ONCE HAD A BOYFRIEND WHO WAS OBSESSED WITH BARBECUE. Carolina style was his favorite: mounds of slow-cooked pork dressed in slinky sauce and piled on pillowy white rolls. He looked at my grandfather’s sauce recipe with chagrin. Where is it from, he wondered, staring at a typed list of ingredients that included vinegars (what kind?), waters (how much?), and liquid smoke.

My grandfather moved to Texas from California during the Depression to work in the oilfields. I don’t know if his recipe is for authentic Texas ’cue. I don’t know if he wrote it himself, cut it from the Houston newspaper, or stole it from a friend. But I do know this: as the thick sauce simmers on my stove, childhood memories bubble. I am five, spread on the prickly Texas grass in my grandparents’ backyard, watching flying squirrels jump from tree to tree. I am 12, swimming in the warm Gulf Coast while my grandparents walk hand in hand on the beach. I am 16, watching my cousin slather brisket with sauce for the meal that will follow my grandfather’s funeral. The recipe is from everywhere and nowhere. It is authentic and entirely new. It is from my grandfather; it is from me.

W.T.’s Barbecue Sauce

1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 lemon
1 sliced yellow onion
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)

Mix vinegar, water, sugar, pepper, lemon, onion, and butter in saucepan. Simmer 30 minutes, uncovered. add ketchup and remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. remove from heat, or lower temperature and simmer to desired consistency. Makes about 2 cups of thick sauce.

Anne Zimmerman
San Francisco, CA 


My nonno cooked his squid and peas in the dank cellar where he made wine.

YOU CAN SMELL IT DOWN THE HALL IN MY APARTMENT BUILDING, crawling out into the street. It seeps into the walls and stays there for days. It’s not briny like the froth at the top of the sea, or crisp like oysters. It is murky, like the deep corners of the ocean. The squid stews in its own juices and ink remnants, with garlic, tomato paste, and black pepper, turning brown and thickening.

The smell brings me to my nonno’s house. He cooked his squid and peas in the dank cellar where he made wine. The tough squid simmered and broke down to tender in a giant pot. The smell climbed up the stairs and drove my grandmother crazy. It belonged down in the dark basement, which was always a few degrees cooler, with the pinochle games and the men drunk on wine, leaning against the stone walls.

The smell horrified me as a boy. I was American, and my nonno and nonna were aliens. I wouldn’t eat it. Watching it being eaten was almost as bad: humans slurping tentacles. I started wanting it when I wasn’t a kid anymore.

The recipe was never written down. My mother told me the basics, and I worked out the rest myself, guided by the smell. After my nonno’s funeral last summer, I waited months to make squid and peas again. I was afraid of where the smell would take me.

Squid and Peas

1 pound fresh squid (equal parts bodies and tentacles)
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
4 or 5 large cloves garlic, chopped (more or less, as you like)
1 to 2 cups peas, frozen or fresh (more or less, as you like)
olive oil
black pepper
2 1/2 cups warm water

Clean squid. Separate tentacles from bodies. Cut the bodies into rings; cut the tentacle groups in half if they are large.

Cover the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil, and place over medium heat. Add the squid and stir. Add a small amount of salt and pepper. After a few minutes, after the squid turns whitish, firms up, and gives out some of its liquid, throw in the garlic and mix it around. Be careful not to brown or burn the garlic.

Mix tomato paste into the water until it dissolves. Pour the solution over the squid until they are nearly covered. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Add more salt, and lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 60 to 90 minutes with the lid tilted, allowing the sauce to reduce. This dish does well with lots of black pepper, so add whenever you want and as
much as you like. With about 20 minutes to go, add the peas and a little more salt.

It’s done when the sauce is thick, murky, and a dark reddish brown. The squid should be tender and the peas still with a snap. Spoon into a shallow bowl and serve with a hunk of crusty bread for sopping.

Jonah Fontela


MY GRANDFATHER, A CATTLERANCHER, couldn’t make sense of supper if there wasn’t a pile of meat on his plate. When my mother cooked tacos, he spooned every last crumble of ground beef from the serving dish into his taco shells because he couldn’t imagine that two pounds were meant to feed an entire family.

My mother married a city man. An artist. Which also baffled my granddad. Her family introduced him at reunions and holidays: “Get a load,” they’d say, nodding in his direction. “He draws pictures for money, that one.”

Not much money. Not at first. For a long time, my family ate deviled ham, Vienna sausages, Spam. My mother concocted “hobo sandwiches,” and this is the one recipe my sister (herself an artist now) and I most wanted from our mom’s kitchen.

Years later, I’m a near-vegetarian. that fact alone would embarrass my granddad, but to add insult to injury, my sister and I still eat like hobos. When she visits, I skulk down the potted-meat aisle at the grocery and knock a can of Spam in my cart, hoping no one notices.

My sister and I watch the brown sugar bubble on each slice in the oven, anticipating the flavor of that sweet spot between country and city, means and hardship, art and ingenuity.

Hobo Sandwiches

1/4 cup onion, chopped
1 small pat butter
1 can of Van Camp’s pork and beans
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/2 tablespoon mustard
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 can of Spam
Hamburger buns
slices of American cheese

Chop and sauté 1/4 cup of the onion in butter in a skillet. Add the pork and beans. Add the ketchup, mustard, and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar. Stir and let simmer. Slice Spam thinly. Place slices on foil-lined cookie sheet, sprinkle well with half of the remaining brown sugar, and bake at 350°F for 10 minutes. Flip the slices, sprinkling with brown sugar again, and bake that side for 10 minutes or until both sides are brown and cooked well. Serve spam, fresh from the oven, on hamburger buns, topped with beans and slices of American cheese.

Jill Patterson
Texas Tech University


SUNDAY NIGHT SUPPER WAS THE ONE TIME A WEEK we sat for a meal as a family — five of us around the table. Mostly we laughed. When I think of those nights, I see hysterics all around, forkfuls of lamb stalled on the way to the mouth. Sam giggling over his steak, Will with his arms in the air, Dad (who’s never owned a pair of blue jeans) cracking up despite himself, Mom laughing to the point of silence, tears on her cheeks. I’m there doubled over, trying to catch my breath. We ate, too, but the food played second fiddle to the jokes and misbehavior, rebellion in burp form, the act of wearing a Sox cap to the table, seeing if you could get away with saying “shit” or “ass.” I didn’t think about how the food was made; it appeared on the table. We ate it, and we joked.

My mom’s roast chicken is the meal most strongly associated with those nights. Crisp skin, moist meat, thyme and garlic. Step one in the instructions she wrote: Buy a chicken. She drew a diagram of the bird to show where to slather the mix of butter, garlic, Parmesan, and thyme. “Opposite of liposuction” is a parenthetical note. When I roast chicken now, when I slide my fingers between slick skin and cold flesh, I don’t just think of those boisterous, merry Sunday night suppers. I think of my mom, quiet in the kitchen beforehand, her fingers underneath the chicken skin, fighting against the gloom, four o’clock to seven on Sunday evening. She called them suicide hours.

Mom’s Roast Chicken

Buy a chicken. Combine: 3 tablespoons of soft butter, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, some thyme. Slide fingers underneath chicken skin membrane. spread butter mixture over body, under skin (opposite of liposuction). Salt and pepper outside of bird. Wash hands. Roast in a 350°F oven until done (about 90 minutes,
depending on poundage).

Nina Maclaughlin


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eighteen

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