I always hear people complain about memory loss. Do you forget where you put your keys? That’s how the problem is often phrased. There is an idea that age itself muddies the waters of the brain, causing the things we need to sink. Or maybe it’s your meds, another villain. I always go with the theory that faulty memory is a function of having just too important stuff to keep track of. When you’re younger, you don’t have as much going on, daily or in the bigger picture, so finding your mascara or coming up with words is easier. Think about how much your day-to-day has in it, mid lifers – is it any wonder that you can’t find things when you need them, that a familiar face lacks a ready name, that the perfect word remains at the tip of your tongue but stubbornly refuses to come out of your mouth?
A few years back, concerned about the occasional memory glitch when I was speaking in front of people, I came up with a solution. When I came to a place in my remarks when I simply could not come up with the word I wanted, I would utter a different word: Helicopter. And then I would continue with my remarks. Helicopter was my go-to utterance, my transition from one known figure of speech to the next. To me, it was better than umn. I trusted that no one would be listening closely enough to note the absurdity. And I’d be free of the anxiety that hits you: oh, no, what was it I wanted to say, I can’t think of it, it was like something that I can almost put my finger on, duh!
When you write there is a brilliant way to hold your place while you come up with the correct word or phrase, the one you really want to use. TK means “to come,” and is a printing and journalism reference used to signify that additional material will be added at a later date. The reason: very few words use this combination of letters, and so you can easily search for TK when the time comes to put in the proper locution. If you were to write out “to come” the words might be mistaken at some point as a deliberate part of the text. That would be weird. So in writing this paragraph, for example, I might say that the useful term TK was invented in TK, and then come back later to fill in the missing date. I use this trick more often than I can say, because it allows me to push straight through with a thought and not be caught in a frustrating wordless moment. It only doesn’t work if you’re writing about latkes or catkins. (Gil says he wants TK to be his epitaph.)
Helicopter was sort of a verbal TK, an admission that my fishing line was not going to come up with a trout in the immediate future. There are some foods that lend themselves to a helicopter strategy, too, culinary specialties for which you can put in a TK and scramble for the right term a little later. A recipe for meat loaf, for example, doesn’t have to be perfect. There are a thousand, maybe a million ways of preparing it, and probably most of them taste fine. Good Housekeeping did a study in 2007 and found that meat loaf was the seventh-favorite dish in the U.S., but I think it probably really ranks higher as comfort food enjoys its usual resurgence.
The Romans made it as early as the fifth century. In his cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, Apicius cited a patty formed of chopped meat combined with spices, wine-soaked bread and pine nuts. Cooks of the Middle Ages continued to fruit-ify it, as was their wont.
All over Europe people have come up with different preparation methods. In America, food scholars date it to the Southern dish of scrapple, mixing ground pork – including lungs, liver, and heart– and cornmeal. During the Great Depression some bread crumbs, broken crackers or oatmeal stretched the meat dollar.
In the 1890s the mechanical meat grinder was invented. Shortly thereafter meatloaf was first mentioned in print in the U.S. Then the recipes began to flood. I looked through my collection of community cookbooks and historical cooking pamphlets to find a wealth of options for meat loaf mavens looking to fill a TK in their approach.
In Old Timey Recipes, a handwritten “collection from some of the best cooks of The Carolinas, The Virginias, Tennessee, and Kentucky” that was published in 1969, we find a version that incorporates corn flakes and tomato juice. From the 1967 Talk About Good!, put together in Lafayette, Louisiana, there’s Hattie’s Meat Loaf, a plain-jane variety with ground beef, eggs and bell pepper. The Search Light Recipe Book, published by The Household Magazine in Topeka, Kansas, includes both crackers and milk (those might also be nice alongside the entree). The pamphlet produced by the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society in East Hampton, New York in 1948 adds tapioca.
A Man’s Cook Book: For Outdoors and Kitchen (1950) dresses up the usual beef with Karo syrup and a can of Carnation milk.
Another favorite of mine, Mrs. Rasmussen’s Book of One-Arm Cookery, explains how to insert cooked eggs into the raw meat mixture so that “the slices of meat loaf will have a perfect slice of hard-boiled egg in the middle.” The author adds, “This dish keeps well—if you got a padlock!” A self-published spiral-bound Hilltop Housewife Cookbook by Hazel B. Corliss offers not one but seven recipes for the dish, including Hidden Treasure Meat Loaf that cunningly conceals “little squares of cheese.” One bare-bones book came out in 1929, when the first recipe instruction was to “Chop the steak.” That task would flummox probably 99 percent of American cooks today.
Even the Metropolitan Museum got in on the home cooking racket in 1973, with A Culinary Collection: Recipes from Members of the Board of Trustees and Staff, one that includes a sophisticated Bloody Mary Meat Loaf. The timeless Ground Beef Cookbook, of course, runneth over with meat loaf ideas. In fact, there is a whole section on “Loaves.” It’s a good place to go when you crave a recipe for banana meat loaf or cranberry meat loaf or meat loaf with applesauce folded in. Very complex, tastewise. By comparison, in the Porter Church Cook Book of 1904, between the beefsteak omelette and the roast heart, I discovered a simple veal loaf, one accented delicately with nutmeg.
I actually have one cookbook named specifically for the subject: Padre Kino’s Favorite Meatloaf: And other recipes from Baja, Arizona. Incorporating chorizo and cheddar, Kino proves that you can add a TK somewhere along the process of mixing your meat and come up with something rather tasty.
When I make meat loaf I start with the same essential ingredients, then I revert to helicopter mode, substituting what I can vaguely remember from the last time I concocted the recipe and also what seems like the best strategy given the constraints of my fridge or pantry. I’ll combine a couple of pounds of meat – beef, pork, chicken, veal or turkey, whatever’s available– then add some eggs and bread crumbs. And then… what else? Can’t remember? Try onions, red pepper, shredded cabbage. Anything but applesauce. Believe me, whatever you add, when it comes out of the oven you will need a padlock.
Helicopter Meat Loaf
2 lbs. mixed ground beef, veal and pork
2 lbs. ground turkey
2 chopped onions, sauteed slightly
1 red onion, chopped and sauteed with onion
¼ head cabbage, shredded, sauteed with onion
2 cups bread crumbs
1 c. ketchup
½ c. mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients. Shape into a loaf in a jellyroll pan. Bake at 375, 20 minutes/lb.