They say you can never go home again—meaning, it won’t be the same as you remember it. Sometimes, though, it may be even better.
Such was the case with our Mother’s Day weekend homecoming trip to Pittsburgh. I “chaperoned” my 84-year old mother and septuagenarian Aunts Jill and Jeannine back to the city of our youth. My mother and aunts were (mostly) raised there, and I lived there until we moved to Florida when I was 7. Though we had each made periodic trips back over the years, my motive for planning this journey was for the Steel City to unlock a treasure trove of family tales from my mother and aunts, and for me to sit, savor and soak them up. Worked like a charm. Every moment was glorious.
At the Phipps Conservatory, my aunts recalled being forced into stiff frocks and white patent shoes each Mother’s Day of their youth, and visiting the beautiful gardens with my Granny Hagan, who received compliments on her pretty daughters. Back then, they would not have seen anything as edgy, or as wonderful, as the current exhibit—Pittsburgh native son Billy Porter’s “Flowers Meet Fashion” showcased extravagant gowns he created out of begonias, rhododendrons and other fabulous flora.
Aunt Jill had called ahead to Longue Vue Country Club, which holds many sacred memories for our family. Her wedding reception had taken place there in 1968, and my mother and Aunt Jeannine had attended her, of course. I recalled my annual trips to the Club with Granny Hagan to have cookies and cocoa with Santa, and family dinners in the grand ballroom, accompanying my Pop Pop to the dessert table where he would stand and scarf down chocolate eclairs outside Granny’s line of sight. The Club has aged beautifully, and it embraced us like prodigal Pittsburgh princesses, offering its Pink Terrace and Grill for us to share dinner and bask in the memories.
Our last day, we explored all three rivers – the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio – aboard the “Rivers of Steel” cruise, and basked in the May sun, taking in magnificent vistas of Pittsburgh architecture, the Duquesne incline, and Point State Park. That evening we gazed down on the skyline from a posh restaurant perched on Mt. Washington. We all agreed that our memories of Pittsburgh of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, precious though they were, were tinted grey and hazy by thriving steel mills—the source of our family’s livelihood as well as the emphysema and cancers that claimed the lives of many in my grandparents’ generations. Today, the Steel City has beautifully transitioned from manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy, and with this change enjoys clean water, clear skies, and a wonderful quality of life.
This month’s recipe of my mother’s meat loaf is Pittsburgh through and through. It was passed down from my Grammy Walsh, and made its way south when we moved. My brothers and I were always delighted to settle in for dinner in the original Strawberry Kitchen when meat loaf and baked potatoes were on the menu. My aunts and mother agree that it is absolute sacrilege to use anything but Pittsburgh’s own Heinz-trademarked ketchup (not ‘catsup,’ for heaven’s sake, NEVER!) in the recipe. Even though it’s now manufactured in Ohio, every good Pittsburgher can recall at least one field trip to the Heinz factory, looking down from a catwalk overhead into giant vats of ketchup and tomato soup, and being presented with a ketchup or a pickle pin at the conclusion of the tour—my aunt brought one for each of us when we visited. Ronald Reagan was right. To us Pittsburghers, ketchup is a vegetable, and a noble one at that.
Grammy’s meat loaf is comfort food at its finest. Use a mix of ground pork and beef for maximum moist, and don’t skip the blender step. The resulting loaf is savory, juicy, and mm, mm, good—and ample enough for next day sandwiches. And like the city where it originated, it’s unpretentious, comforting, dependable, and perhaps even better than you remember it.
Ketching Up in Pittsburgh, the Meatloaf of CitiesCourse: Entrees, MeatDifficulty: Easy
This is a forgiving recipe; ground pork makes it juicier, but it’s good with just beef. Yellow or dijon mustard both work fine; Pegster uses evaporated milk, I use regular. What’s not negotiable is Heinz ketchup.
1 1/2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork
3/4 cup milk
1 medium onion, sliced
3 Tbs. mustard
6 Tbs. Heinz ketchup (OR 3 Tbs. ketchup and 3 Tbs. Heinz chili sauce, preferred), plus extra ketchup for topping
12 Ritz crackers
1/2 tsp. salt & 1/2 tsp. pepper
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Grind or smash Ritz crackers into crumbs.
- Put egg, milk, ketchup (& chili sauce, if using), mustard and onion in blender and blend until smooth.
- In a large bowl, mix ground beef, pork, and all remaining ingredients. (I start with a large spoon and then get in there with my hands!)
- Mold into a loaf in a large baking pan, with a good margin around for catching juices.
- Squeeze extra ketchup in a jaunty design on top of meatloaf.
- Bake for 1 hour. Recommend baking potatoes at the same time!
- Allow to cool for a few minutes. Using two spatulas, lift loaf out of juices (well, grease), onto clean platter, and serve.