I don't immediately associate my mother with food, although it was a prevalent part of our lives, primarily because we didn't always have it. Often our meals consisted of a two-liter bottle of cola with jelly and butter sandwiches.
My mother was a single mom raising four kids. When my parents divorced, my father moved back to New York where he was from, and we stayed in Illinois. We weren't too far from our grandparents, but my mom didn't want to ask for anyone's help, so it was always just the five of us. She worked two or three jobs at times, and really didn't have time to cook. When she did, it was a treat for us to get fish sticks or meatloaf. We had few vegetables, and drowned them in butter to make them taste better. On the very rare occasions that we ate fast food, the four of us split two hamburgers, one order of fries, and a large Coke. Mom divided the portions to be fair.
At an early age, I was preoccupied with food, devouring a piece of meat or spoonful of peanut butter because I didn’t know when I’d have it again. It was exciting to have the actual name brand of a cereal or snack, instead of the black-and-white packaging of a generic brand that read “Puffed Rice” or “Corn Chips.” One day I came home from school to find nothing to drink, not even water, since my mom hadn't paid the water bill. I called her at her day job to ask what time she would be home, to ask her to bring something to drink. There was a picture in her bedroom of a woman drinking iced tea, from a glass with three big ice cubes and a red-and-white striped straw. I told my mom that I wanted to be the lady in that picture. She told me to get some ice cubes from the freezer, but they were all gone—my brothers had gotten there first. I grabbed the frozen orange juice and a spoon and started “drinking” that.
At night, my mother had a job cleaning offices. My siblings and I had to go with her, and while we were waiting for her to clean, we’d check the refrigerators for food, and take candy out of jars on people’s desks. If there were no treats, we’d move around the office supplies—our little revenge for not having some goodies for us. Mom would remind us not to take too many so that our theft was not obvious. I often wonder how many office workers came in the next day confused about where their candy went or what happened to their stapler.
Finally when my mom made enough money at a day job, she didn't have to work nights and was able to start buying food regularly. We still ate generic brands and split two hamburgers four ways, but we had more hot meals that Mom actually cooked, with appetizing aromas in the apartment. When Mom made meatloaf, it might have been filet mignon—it tasted like the best dish in the world. And there was always something to drink.
Heather Leary is an actor currently based in Chicago. She can found at heatherleary.com.
1 1/2 – 2 lb. ground beef
1 or 2 eggs
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
meatloaf seasoning packet
1 medium green pepper, chopped (optional)
1/2 - 1 c. breadcrumbs
salt and pepper, to taste
garlic powder (optional)
2 T. ketchup
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine ground beef, egg(s), onion and meatloaf seasoning, mixing with hands.
Mix in optional green pepper.
Add breadcrumbs, mixing by hand.
Add salt, pepper, and optional garlic powder, mixing until all ingredients are combined.
Pat mixture into a lightly greased 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch loaf pan.
Cook for 1 hour.
Remove from oven and spread ketchup on top.
Allow to rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving.