An on-the-road weekend brings lovely food, indulgent food—like a big farmer’s breakfast at the family restaurant, with never ending mugs of coffee and long, lazy conversation with dearly-missed loved ones. Then, that afternoon, I scoop from a delightful fruit bowl and nosh on light, fresh salads at the women-only “A baby is coming!” gathering. A quick stop on the road home yields grilled meat and bread from the flat-top, and a cola, full-out, all the caffeine, all the sugar.
A quick trip–a blazing quick trip: almost more hours on road than hours to visit,–and it is wonderful to be home and have a Monday off, with time to clean and straighten, throw the laundry in and run the errands, catch up on the weekend’s events. And then, time to plan a family dinner.
It doesn’t take much planning, really–my big old yellow Corningware bowl is full of fresh potatoes from Hutch Haven’s farm, and there are seven neatly Tupperwared blocks of ground meat in the chest freezer. So there you have it: we will have an American staple of weeknight family dining. I will make hamburger gravy and mashed potatoes.
We don’t call it that, of course; it is, and always will be, hang-ga-burner gravy and bashed boos, a musical reminiscence of some kid’s wonderful mispronunciation. I can’t remember which kid–I can’t even remember whose kid, or which generation that kid was part of, but that child has the dubious honor of forever renaming a family favorite meal.
My frugal Scottish heart leaps up, alarmed, and falls back, flattened, when I go to the supermarket and find that ground chuck is on sale–on SALE, mind you!–for three dollars and ninety-nine cents a pound. Oh no, I swear; oh no, I will NOT pay steak prices for bargain meat!
So I buy chicken. I buy pork.
But. We miss our meatloaves, our meatballs long-simmered in sauce; sometimes we want to throw a patty on the grill or brown up a base for chili. So I compromise: I buy the damned ground chuck, using a coupon; but I also buy ground pork and ground turkey. I do some quick calculations, and all discounts considered, I figure my ground meat is now costing me 2.49 a pound. THAT, I can live with.
At home, I dump the meat all together in that workhorse Corningware bowl, roll up my sleeves and plunge my hands in to the elbow, squishing the cold, mushy meat with my clean, de-ringed hands. Jim comes in mid-mash. What is THAT? he asks. When I explain, he gets that look, chin dropped, eyebrows raised; he peers disapprovingly at me over his glasses, and he hastily leaves the room.
These days, everyone’s a Guy Fieri. I go back to my ground meat mashing.
So, “What’s for dinner?” Jim asks on Monday afternoon, and I tell him, enthusiastically, hang-ga-burner gravy and bashed boos. His face does not light up.
“With your…new…burger?” he asks.
When I say yes, he says he thinks he might throw some pizza bites in the microwave. In fact, he does that, that very minute, 60 minutes before dinner is due to hit the table.
My mother had five ravenous kids to feed, each more voracious than the last, and a husband who voted for meat and potatoes at every meal. So we ate thin-cut fried pork chops; the chops came in packages of eight, we came in a package of seven, and someone would always eat fast with an eye to nabbing that last chop. I put my wrist at risk, reaching for it; a fork’s tines pierce child-skin just as easily as they pierce tough fried pork.
“Ow!” I would scream, and my mother would slap the table.
“Put it back,” she would say to one brother or another. “That’s for your father’s lunch.”
The pork chop would be dumped gracelessly back on the serving plate.
Chicken was another trouble-starter: we almost all liked the breast meat, and of course, there were only two pieces that qualified. The odds were not good of being the lucky, plucky explorer who dove in and came out the white-meat winner. The ensuing meal would be eaten to the tune of extreme martyrdom, melancholy munching, theatrical sighs. Unfortunately, it never bothered the breast-contest winner; in fact, I think the triumph added zest. He savored his dinner with overt glee.
Roast beef was a once-in-a-blue-moon treat; at least with that meal, everyone got the same cut.
And hamburger gravy was another equal opportunity feeder–no best cuts to reward the fleetest of hand and most intrepid, just a giant bowl of consistent ground beef floating in its flour and water gravy. In lean weeks, there might be a lot more gravy than there was meat, but the Kitchen Bouquet made it dark and fragrant, and we would usually scrape the pot clean. And you could have a huge mountain of mashed potatoes if you liked–my Depression-kid mother bought her potatoes in 50 pound burlap sacks; she cut away anything icky, and, to my father’s delight, we ate mounds of potatoes at most every meal. They might be fried or boiled, but on hamburger gravy nights, they were always mashed, always fluffy, whipped to extremity by my mother’s cheap little hand mixer.
James, who is on the autism spectrum, has very real aversions to certain textures. This makes him suspicious of one pot wonder meals; if he spies a shard of sautéed onion, he runs gagging from the table. I like the flavor of onion in my hamburger gravy. So here is what I do this Monday night:
I upside the tub of frozen meat under a cold running faucet until the whole chunk of meat fwacks away from the plastic bottom; then I place that frozen burger-brick in a cast iron skillet. I fill the skillet halfway with water, and cover the pan. I put it on the stove top, I let the water come to a simmer, and slowly, the outer meat defrosts. I pull the cooked edges away from the brick until I have a nicely sizzling pan of chunky ground meat. I sprinkle the meat with onion powder, garlic powder, sea salt, and pepper; I add a little more water and adjust the temp to a mellow simmer.
I peel potatoes. I chop them into cubes and throw them in a little pot of clear cold water. When the right number of potatoes are all chopped, I rinse them three times. I don’t know why I rinse them three times; someone in authority once told me I MUST do that, so evermore, I do. It certainly does no harm.
I put the potatoes on to boil and lift the lid on the skillet. A rich, meaty steam billows out; Jim, who chooses that minute to walk through the kitchen, breathes deeply.
“Well,” he says, with more than a hint of dubious in his tone, “it SMELLS good.”
It needs something, though, I decide. I squirt in a dollop of catsup, liking the red tinge that adds to the broth. I put the catsup back in its place on the refrigerator door, right next to the hot sauce. Hmm, I think; then: Oh, what the heck. I shaker in a teaspoon or so of hot sauce. And then–Honor thy mother!–I unleash a blurp of Kitchen Bouquet into the mix. I stir it all together and put the lid back on. I go to read my book.
But I’m meal-planning in my under-conscious. Corn, I think–corn would be perfect as a side. And what about bread…a meal like this begs for some sort of starchy soaker.
I know: biscuits! I have baking mix in the cupboard and a recipe from the College’s culinary department for cheddar cheese biscuits. They are rumored to taste just like those from that famous seafood chain. I’ll give them a try.
I upside-down-tent my book on the table, and I go to grate cheese and measure baking mix, pour milk and shake in garlic salt. I grease a heavy baking sheet; I drop cheesy biscuit dough dollops onto it, pop the tray into the oven.
My potatoes are soft and yielding now. I grab my oven mitt and drain them, leaving a little bit of the boil water for whipping. I chop Velveeta cheese into cubes, and drop the cubes (a Julia Child moment this is NOT, but I don’t care) in with the hot potatoes. A little bit of butter; I put the lid back on so all that’s meltable will melt, and then I mash it all together before shlurping the whole mess into the Mixmaster bowl and turning on the mixer, to whip the potatoes until there are no lumps,–none, not one, not anywhere.
I open a bag of frozen corn and shake the niblets into a saucepan, add some water, throw in a blop of butter. I put the saucepan on the simmer burner, lit low.
And then Mark is home, and the biscuits are out of the oven. I brush their cheesy tops with melted butter, sprinkle them with parsley and a bit more garlic powder. Jim allows as how they smell just like the ones at that seafood palace; he will, he says, join us at the table, but he will eat only hot buttered biscuits.
I scrape down the potato bowl and let the mixer keep doing its job. Mark runs up to change, and I beat a quarter cup of water and a couple tablespoons of flour to a frothy paste in a mixing cup. I drizzle the pasty mix into the bubbling meat juice, and stir it into a thick rich gravy, deep reddish brown, simmering. Jim sets the table–dinner plates for Mark and me, a dessert plate for himself.
And the dad comes down and we say a quick grace, and Mark and I dollop mashed potatoes onto our plates, we create deep potato moats with the serving spoon’s backside, and we ladle in the steaming, fragrant burger gravy. Scoops of corn with butter melting. Biscuits that crumble just a little when cracked, steam rising.
“Ummmmmmm,” says Jim. “GOOD biscuits.”
Mark and I, tucking in, respond thoughtfully: “Mmmmmrrrfrgll.”
Oh, it’s good; it tastes like comfort and growing up and knowing someone’s got your back. It tastes like being home. We eat everything. We scrape our plates. Mark gets up for more and brings a second steamy mound of meaty gravy and potatoes back to the table. Jim says, a little plaintively, “Are there any potatoes left?”
There are, of course; Jim goes to help himself, and then we hear him mutter, “Oh, what the heck,” and he comes back with potatoes covered with the meat concoction. He forks some up, tastes it, and nods emphatically.
“Hang-ga-burner gravy,” he says, dreamily.
We nod back. “Hang-ga-burner gravy,” we agree.
Jim allows as how the meat mixture maybe tastes BETTER than plain old ground chuck. We all pat our tummies. Comfort food, we say. Home cookin’.
Ah, tomorrow: tomorrow night we will eat soup–soup with kale in it!–, and then on Wednesday, we’ll sauté fresh veggies. Later this week we will have lean chicken breasts, baked, no skin. We will have, one night, a big crisp lettuce salad. Those will be healthy meals; they will be wise meals; they will be tasty meals, too.
But tonight, tonight, tonight on this home-again Monday,–tonight I had hang-ga-burner gravy, tumbled onto bashed boos.