I pulled the recipe out again this morning and wondered how many times I’ve made hamburg barbecue. 100? 500? It is my go-to comfort food. I’ve made it whenever there is a need for a warm meal on short notice. I’ve made it after the death of a close relative when hungry family members descended, exhausted and travel-worn. I’ve made it on Monday nights when I am not motivated to cook and there isn’t anything remotely edible in the refrigerator. I made it today when I found out at the last minute we were hosting a lunch meeting of the power-brokers for my husband’s drum corps. A pound of ground beef, an onion and some pantry staples stepping in once again as the cavalry of food rescue.
As a child, I remember being served sloppy joes on those pink plastic cafeteria trays with the little indentations for each measured portion, usually accompanied by tater-tots or canned corn. I remember looking at that pale orange mass of ground something-or-other meat and thinking there was no way I could eat that. I usually ate whatever was put in front of me, but I drew the line on school-produced sloppy joes.
Then my mother came home from her bridge club one day with a recipe for barbecue that contained brown sugar. I was converted. This was dark and rich and slightly sweet and tasted like Friday night football games and Sunday afternoon sledding parties. It was kitchen-table-paper-napkin food. Oddly, my mother had it filed under “party food” in her little tin box of recipes right along with a recipe for an alcoholic punch that could leave you in a stupor after the second cup and one for those lovely molded butter mints so popular at the time.
I still use that same typed and spattered file card, although I have the ingredients memorized. It calls for one-third of a bottle of “catsup” which in those days was always packaged in a glass bottle that you had to pound on the bottom to get started. There were no plastic squeeze bottles of organic ketchup, or, heaven help us, pre-packaged containers of ketchup and mayonnaise already mixed together. It was just plain ketchup for just plain hamburg barbecue. I still make the recipe the same way except that I now add a little Montreal Steak seasoning and back off on the Worcestershire. It works every single time.
Sometimes it feels good to go back to the basics. To not be so concerned with how something will play on social media or whether Joanna Gaines would approve. There is something visceral in comfort food, and I think occasionally it feels good to fuel our bodies with meals that have sustained us for years, even if they’re not what we now consider nutritionally correct.
Lately, I’ve found myself in a situation that’s caused me to question my own thought processes. I’ve been overwhelmed by too many voices and too much rhetoric to the point that I haven’t listened to the voice inside myself struggling to be heard. It’s how I feel when reading cooking blogs where people show off complicated recipes made with obscure ingredients and I think I should be doing that, too. That maybe I’m missing the boat and not staying current. But today I was reminded that often the simplest recipe is the best one. That the humblest ingredients can come together to create exactly what we need, even if it’s not trendy. And that sometimes nothing tastes better than a plain pot of barbecue.