The Absurd and Amazing Adventures of Cafe Girl: Meatloaf

June 17, 2011


"What is this?" my father asks, pointing to a picture of something I can't quite decipher. We are at Erik's DeliCafe in Gilroy, CA, on our way home to Los Angeles from a week long road trip to San Francisco. The sandwich guy tells us it's meatloaf, to which my father asks quizzically, "What is meatloaf?"

You see, we are not an American family. In Singapore, meat doesn't come politely ground - it comes in chunks, slices, and sometimes, still with a face on it. Meatloaf, which in that photograph looked more like a hunk of bread than a piece of meat, is as foreign to my father as haggis is to an American.

When I explain that meatloaf is exactly what it sounds like - a loaf of ground meat seasoned with onions, ketchup, and held together by eggs and bread crumbs - my father's eyes light up. This makes me laugh, and realize that whether American or Singaporean, man's love of meat must be congenital.

Later in Solvang, CA, my father tries to order meatloaf off the restaurant menu, which is how I realize he's been thinking about this "loaf made of meat" for the last day and a half. Except we find out that the meatloaf on the menu is made of beef, the only meat that my dad does not eat. My father shrugs and says something like, "Well, I guess it's not in the cards."

"Why don't I make you some meatloaf when we're back in LA?" I ask, "We can use pork and turkey."

My father doesn't say it then, but he's happy.

Back in Los Angeles, I scour my cookbooks for the perfect recipe. The last time I made meatloaf, I was just out of college. I used cheap ground meat and probably half a bottle of ketchup. Since then, I've grown to be a food snob who doesn't think ketchup should really be an ingredient in any recipe.

For my dad, I wanted a recipe that fell somewhere between the American 50s classic and gourmet. For some reason I couldn't articulate, I wanted to give my dad something that was a classier than ground meat and ketchup.

Bon Appetit's Turkey Meatloaf with Sun-dried Tomatoes from their 1996 issue calls for ground dark turkey, sauteed onions and celery, sun-dried tomatoes, and dried sage and oregano. Ketchup is used as a glaze, rather than a key ingredient. In other words, it satisfied the snob in me, while still having echos of the classic American comfort food that is meatloaf.

As I preheated the oven, poured olive oil into my pan, and heard the sizzle of chopped celery and onions, it struck me that I was doing something that was quintessentially Asian - serving my father. Traditional Asian culture is highly patriarchal, women serve their men. Wives serve their husbands, single daughters, their fathers. My mother grew up being told that an education for a woman wasn't necessary - women were, after all, destined to be married and spend their lives serving their husbands, and really, who needed an academic education for that?

My father, as a father of two daughters and no sons, straddled the world of traditional patriarchy and the world of meritocracy where a good education was the key to success for both men and women. Even as he used to say to my mother, "What's a wife for, if not to serve?" he never raised his daughters to be home makers. When it came between a choice to take Home Economics or Music as an elective in high school, both my sister and I took Music. Which is why, today when I serve you chicken for dinner, I can do so with a side of Chopin. My sister and I grew to be articulate, well educated, high functioning women with careers who can be financially self-sufficient, single or married.

And yet, I know my father harbors double standards - boys must be more independent than girls, daughters, once married, belong to their husbands' families. And though he never says it to my face, single daughters should serve their fathers in a way that sons are never called to. I think that's partly why when I made my father meatloaf without him asking, my dad beamed with pride. He'd raised a daughter who would serve. As a father, he'd arrived.

When we sat down to dinner, and I put a slice of freshly cooked meatloaf on his plate, my father said something else that sent a shiver down my spine. "Who would expect that a man like me, from such a poor family, would be able to send my daughters to university, and be sitting in LA with my daughter, eating meatloaf?"

As a man, my father had arrived.

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