Meatballs and meatloaf

I’m going to miss the annual Sacred Heart spaghetti dinner on April 28, but you shouldn’t. It’s the best $10 you’ll spend if you want a glimpse of Old Durango history with your meatballs. The meatballs, shaped like footballs, are signature Violet Picolli, who has led the annual event for the last 38 years. I’ve attended a dozen of these spaghetti dinners, but I still can’t figure out the proportions of bread crumbs to grated parmesan to beef in these super-sized wonders.

On Friday night I judged the annual BPOE Meatloaf Cook-off. One of the judges failed to show, so I was the last-minute replacement. Because I had done a little research for the sidebar that accompanies this week’s feature, I knew that the all-American iconic mélange we call meatloaf has no real rules, except those assigned by cook-off organizers.

Arguably meatloaf is the one food that reflects social change. At least that’s the opinion expressed by New York City food writer Nadia Arumugam in her Sept. 20, 2011, Atlantic Monthly feature about the history of meatloaf. She documents the culinary metamorphosis of the one comfort food most of us love to hate and hate admitting we love. It’s an interesting read, whether you agree with her or not.

Later, I stumbled on the Old Quaker Oats back-of-the-box 1950s recipe that aging hippies recall from their youth. It calls for ¾ cup of old-fashioned uncooked oats to be added to 1½ pounds of ground beef and half a finely chopped onion. A cup of tomato juice added to a beaten egg holds the mixture together. A quarter teaspoon of black pepper and 1½ teaspoons of salt are the only seasoning. With the recipe were dozens of comments such as “OMG – I’ve been looking for this recipe forever. The one on the newer boxes is just not the same!”

This recipe is gluten-free, I noted, a condition no one dreamed, let alone knew about 60 years ago.

There are a dozen or so on the planet who still soak day-old bread in milk, suffering the double assault of gluten and lactose with every bite of meatloaf they put in their mouths. I’m guessing that most of what I tried Friday night fell into that category. I tasted more meatloaf than anyone should. I can honestly say there wasn’t a bad one among the bunch, although two were under-seasoned. Afterward I slept amazingly well. Maybe one of those had a shot of Benadryl or medicinal marijuana somewhere in the mix, though I doubt it.

I also doubt if anyone used Panko bread crumbs, what Durango restaurant “Ken and Sue’s” uses in their popular Aunt Lydia’s Meatloaf entrée that sells for $7.95 as a sandwich or $15.95 when paired with sautéed spinach as a dinner entrée.

Meatloaf 2012 at an upscale Durango restaurant is freshly ground beef on house made focaccia over smashed potatoes and with caramelized onions. It’s garnished with fried, crispy shards of tobacco onions. Aunt Lydia, a 94-year-old great cook from Southern Florida and the aunt of Sue Fusco, one of the restaurant’s owners, probably didn’t use Panko bread crumbs or serve it with a tobacco onion tower, but nonetheless she was the inspiration.

What would an upscale Italian restaurant put in its meatballs? How do you improve on quality ground beef, Parmesan and bread crumbs, unless it is to add pork butt or a hint of fresh garlic and onion?

I guess it is time for me to start sampling restaurant meatballs, but I’m betting there are few that can beat Violet Picolli’s.

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