Nothing Says I Love You Quite Like a Heart-Shaped Meatloaf | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Nothing Says I Love You Quite Like a Heart-Shaped Meatloaf

I love funny family stories, the kind that get told over and over again and get better with age. My family certainly has its fair share, but since I started dating my husband six years ago, I've heard a whole slew from the annals of his family's lore. There's the story of my mother- and late-father...

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I love funny family stories, the kind that get told over and over again and get better with age. My family certainly has its fair share, but since I started dating my husband six years ago, I've heard a whole slew from the annals of his family's lore.

There's the story of my mother- and late-father-in-law and the honeymoon picnic. That one takes place in 1973, somewhere en route from Central Nebraska to Yellowstone, and ends with a pesky swarm of bees. Then there's the story of Ryan (my husband) and the unslurpable peanut butter milkshake. They sound, I realize, like the titles of Berenstain Bears books. And, oddly, most revolve around food. One story, in particular, is always revisited on Valentine's Day.


To set the scene: My mother-in-law lives in Grand Island, Nebraska, a city of about 50,000 people that has slipped, in recent years, from third to fourth largest in the state. Grand Island is an exit off of Interstate 80, the highway that runs from Teaneck, New Jersey, to San Francisco, bisecting the country. The place (and my mother-in-law, for that matter) is as Midwestern as it gets. As my husband puts it, draw an "X" over the United States and you mark the spot.

Karen lives on a tree-lined street that reminds me of the one Marty McFly drives his DeLorean down during Back to the Future. Being there feels a bit like traveling back in time. It's the land of casseroles and fine folks, where the biggest event of the day may be a porch visit from a neighbor. And it's  great—especially when you are looking for a change of pace from a big city.



It's not a fancy place. Patrons of one of the most popular restaurants in town, Texas T-Bone, are free to toss peanut shells on the concrete floor. So, naturally, Karen and her husband often kept things pretty simple for Valentine's Day. Occasionally, they would exchange cards. Other times, while grocery shopping, they would just show each other the Valentines they would have gotten. "I'm practical," Karen says. She would usually urge him not to, but Clark, Karen's husband, loved to buy her roses. And they would usually opt to prepare a dinner at home. "Because it was always crowded—well, as crowded as Grand Island can be," she says.

So, on a particularly cold Valentine's Day, in 2005, Karen decided she would fix something warm and hearty: a meatloaf. (I called her today just to hear the story again.) "I hardly ever made meatloaf, and he loved it," she says. At the very last minute, she shaped it into a heart. Though she claims it was not a big deal—just a "little meatloaf of love"—she says, "I pulled it out of the oven. I did the whole close your eyes deal. And you would have thought I had given this man the world."

Karen is the shutterbug of the family, but it was Clark who said, "Go get the camera." The photo is buried in a box somewhere, or else I'd share it. But I can imagine what it looks like—Clark grinning ear to ear over that heart-shaped meatloaf. I searched Flickr.com for some sort of replacement, not expecting much, and was surprised to find a few other meatloaves made with love. When I tell Karen, she laughs. "I thought I was being so original," she says. "It must be a hot thing!"

Every Valentine's Day, people eat heart-shaped foods—chocolates, conversation hearts, cut-out sugar cookies, sandwiches with the crusts artistically lopped off and maybe even pancakes or fried eggs. But, even a meatloaf hater like myself has to appreciate my mother-in-law's creativity. Inspired by it, I made a heart-shaped pizza a couple of years ago.

What crazy culinary things have you done in the name of love?
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