Who was it that said it’s probably easier to split an atom than to resist tweaking a meatloaf recipe?
This iconic American mélange begs to be messed with, no matter how good Mom, Grandma or Aunt Lydia make it.
Aunt Lydia’s Meatloaf, a longtime Durango favorite on the menu at Ken & Sue’s, wasn’t among the entries judged Friday night at the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks Chapter 509 Annual Meatloaf Cook-off.
Maybe that’s because 94-year-old Lydia, the aunt of restaurant owner Sue Fusco, isn’t an Elk. Yet.
But if the South Florida retiree were an Elk, she would have gone up against some serious cooks, said Kurt Schuster, this year’s winner by a nose.
“Tough, tough, tough competition tonight,” Schuster said. “Yeah, I was surprised that I won.”
Schuster joined the local chapter of the BPOE two years ago. It wasn’t long before the Durango real estate agent heard about the annual competition that pits brother against brother in a serious throw-down that can earn the winner up to a $30 bar credit.
The bigger prize is bragging rights, especially when you can edge out frequent cook-off winner Mike Murphy by a hair, as Schuster did.
Murphy, one of the cook-off’s founders, was looking to make Friday night’s win a double. Less than a month ago, he walked away with a first-place win at the BPOE chili cook-off.
Both Murphy and Schuster relied on tried-and-true recipes from meatloaf know-it-alls and tweaked them just right.
Schuster’s mother, Leah Schuster, found the original meatloaf recipe in a 50-year-old copy of an Ohio Mennonite cookbook, now held together with rubber bands. It was the family favorite her son recalled from his youth.
“I grew up on this recipe,” Kurt Schuster said. “Of course, I tweaked it.”
Slow cooking to keep the loaf from drying out is critical. Adding Lipton onion soup mix and filling the center with grated cheddar cheese kicks up the flavor, he said.
Leah Schuster said onion soup mix wasn’t a secret she got from the Mennonites.
“I use Lipton onion soup in my goulash, too. It really adds to the flavor,” she said.
Leah Schuster was among the cheering section whooping and hollering as event organizer Jim Shoultz announced the winner.
Arms raised high in a victory stance, Kurt Schuster paraded past Murphy, who was among the crowd waiting in line for a $3.50 sandwich crafted from the remains of the entries.
Murphy, who finished second, wasn’t sure how long local Elks have been meatloafing, but he has entered the contest about 10 or 12 times in the last 15 years, he said.
Murphy gets the credit for raising the bar by limiting ingredients to no more than 20 percent filler per 4 pounds of meat.
“My recipe originally came from the Waldorf Astoria. The Cajun Creole topping is right out of a Paul Prudhomme cookbook – but I modified it,” he said.
James Chavez, owner of Durango Barbecue Co. and a frequent prize-winner in local cooking contests, including Snowdown’s chili cook-off and the Kiwanis Club Fourth of July Barbecue Shoot-Off, walked away from the meatloaf contest empty-handed, but it won’t discourage the first-timer from trying again next year.
“Yeah, I’ll enter again. I had fun with it,” Chavez said.
Chavez said appearance matters most.
“First, the meatloaf has to look good if anyone is going to eat it,” he said.
But the judges disagreed.
“It’s all about taste,” said BPOE trustee Ed Lacey, who developed the judging criteria and instructed the judges about how to assign quarter- and half-point differences in scores.
Uniform slices cut from the center of each entry were divided among three judges, who forked at barbecue, salsa and bacon-topped crusts, guessing at ingredients and commenting openly about subtle differences.
“At least they’re all edible,” judge Dean Fagner, owner of Four Leagues Winery, said with relief.