An exciting upcoming event here in the Grand Valley sparked my interest in setting out to find what most people consider their favorite family meals. And most importantly to me, why?
So an informal poll began. I happened to have a lunch date with my parents who live here in town, so I thought, as I often do, I would subject them to my poll first. This is how it went ...
“Hey Mom, what was your favorite family meal to prepare when us girls were young?” My mom replied, “barbecued backyard rabbit.”
You are correct in interpreting this statement as “backyard rabbit” not necessarily as “backyard barbecue.” Thinking of the sensitivity of my readers and the fact that we currently have one pet rabbit (I promise I had nothing to do with the disappearance of the missing one), I move on to my dad hoping for a more palatable response. Again, I should have known better.
“Hey Dad, what was your favorite family meal mom prepared when us kids still lived at home?”
He replied, “Big Red.”
Again, clarification is needed. Big Red was one of my mom’s favorite Rhode Island Red roosters who developed an all-too-high opinion of himself in defending the ladies. One morning before school, he sent me running to my mom in tears with blood dripping from my forehead. Subsequently, an invitation was sent to the neighbor, Norma, a bottle of red wine was uncorked (before noon, mind you) and before I got off the school bus that afternoon Big Red was simmering away in a pot with mirepoix.
My parents will strongly defend their opinions that the best family meals we had growing up were plucked — literally — from our backyard. They both to this day claim that no meal could compete with flavor and satisfaction that came from our own little homestead. Home-raised rabbit and chicken meals were staples in our diet.
Looking for more up-to-date answers, I threw the question out to my husband and kids over dinner. After many debates, the family unanimously voted for porcupine meatballs, with a few solid runners-up. What I found most interesting about their choice was that I grew up with porcupine meatballs (made with our home-raised beef), and it is not a modern dish. The true origin is debatable and there are dozens, if not more, variations of the recipe dating back decades. What is not debatable is that most people love them. My mom based her recipe off of the original Betty Crocker Cookbook, and she, like me, can never leave a recipe alone. For years her version of porcupine meatballs far surpassed mine and I struggled with this. I asked time and time again why her meatballs were superior to mine. She would shrug her shoulders, giggle and declare she was giving full disclosure. I am still doubtful.
That being said, I am proud to carry on the tradition. In my family’s opinion, I don’t make them often enough. Because of my competitive nature my meatballs are truly never the same but are always scarfed down without complaint.
Porcupine meatballs get their name because cooked rice sticks out of the meatballs, mimicking the look of a porcupine. The meatballs are made of ground beef (turkey or pork can be used) seasoned with various seasonings and simmered in tomato soup or tomato sauce. Original versions of this recipe call for minute rice and a canned Campbell’s tomato soup. I like to use leftover cooked rice to ensure my rice is fully cooked inside the meatballs and I prefer to make my own tomato soup, or in a pinch I prefer one of the boxed organic brands. I also like to use taco seasoning to give the meatballs some kick. I always think of recipes as road maps and encourage detours here and there.
Continuing my quest for the most popular favorite family meals, over the next few days I ventured out asking my friends and random people what theirs were. And again, why?
The first detail I discovered is that I need to conduct polls of such nature more often. I love talking about food, and apparently so do most people if it personally relates to them. I think now that one of the reasons I am so passionate about food is its commonality. Food is the one thing we all mutually share. You may not like the exact same food as your friends, family or neighbor, but we all rely on it and chances are you have a joint interest in the food category with another person and can share stories about it.
No debates (timely statement, I’d like to think) lie in the fact that we all like food. The debate begins when we dive deeper into the subject of likes, dislikes, favorites and traditions, all of which I love to hear about. All responses began with a pause, a clear moment where my question was entering dreamland and then the answers began rolling off the tongue. One answer would trigger another and next thing I knew an entire conversation was devoted to trying to narrow down their top favorites while explaining the history behind it. Talk of “my mother’s best” or “my grandma used to make” and “I grew up with” was abundant, as well as the reasons quick meals were chosen.
Overall, lasagna, spaghetti, pizza, tacos and chili made the top of the list. As fun as the answers were, the reasons behind them were fascinating. What determined a family favorite became quite interesting. Family traditions. Small families. Big families. Kids or no kids. Picky eaters. Food allergies. Busy lifestyles (which we all fall victim to). Budget concerns. Simplicity. Comfort foods. Flexibility.
Not surprisingly, I found the head chef in the home selected easier to prepare meals than those who were just in charge of eating. The level of effort clearly affected the overall satisfaction of the dish. I confess that many of the favorites my kids beg for are not always the easiest to prepare on a weeknight. Hence those family favorites become “special.”
There were also some fun outliers like goulash and Chicken Sloop (not a typo), which of course ignited thought-provoking conversation. As much as I love to hear what other people eat and consider the possibility of adding it to my repertoire, I really find the history behind most intriguing.
It would be fun to conduct a poll of similar nature among a greater demographic other than those who happen to come into contact with me, as I am sure each and every person has a story to tell about why, where and when.
In the upcoming days when you have time, ask a friend or neighbor what they consider to be their family favorite meal and why. I will be shocked if it doesn’t ignite an engaging conversation and I bet you will learn more about that person. You might even be inspired to try out their recipes.