Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dutch Meatballs

Recently, Haley threw a challenge at me: Grandma's meatball recipe. (See previous post).

As Haley explains, Grandma's meatballs were perfect. This is a fact. It can not be disputed. Do not try. We don't know exactly how Grandma achieved the tight crust of the meatball; nor the soft, even textured center; nor the completely round proportions. I believe these secrets to be linked closely to who Grandma was: an individual, surely; a spitfire, granted; and a good cook, which was an indisputable fact.

You see, Grandma was an original who employed a strong and often inflexible will. Over the years, which included war and immigration, Grandma gathered some observations and self-proclaimed truths about life. These governed her goings-ons and came to rule mine as well.
Here are some:

1. NEVER be late. More decidedly, never keep Grandma waiting. Ever. Little matter that you have spent four hours in the pool dragging victims onto the deck before shivering through CPR and the instructor keeps you late to add extraneous points to tomorrow's pass or fail test, Grandma has come to pick you up. Respect that, even if it mean pulling a pair of jeans over a soaking-wet bathingsuit.

2. Get a job. Also, make sure you date then marry someone who has a job. A man should provide.

I admit, this one had me a little worried. I certainly loved Caleb but the whole artist gig wasn't really lining up in Grandma's eyes as a job. Initially, there were a few interrogations as to the hours put in and the sales made. She would not have objected to Caleb submitting a weekly time-sheet for her inspection. Somewhere along the way, he charmed her.I think it was the Babe's honey runs. Every so often he'd swing by her place and they'd toodle out to Babe's honey farm where Grandma would purchase her beloved jar of Babe's honey. Regardless, she took to referring to Caleb's work as 'his business.' He'd become self-employed in her mind. This was a happy situation for everyone and so we left it at that.

3. Be quick about it. Grandma walked really fast. Her speed could be attributed in part to her extraordinarily long legs. Now, don't imagine Grandma to have been a tall women. At her tallest, before the spine began to contract, reducing her total size by about a quarter-inch yearly, she couldn't have been more than five feet and three inches. No, her legs were long in ratio to her total body size. Her waist sat where you or I might indicate the middle of our ribs. On account of this disproportion she seemed to stride across the earth with the speed of a giraffe or ostrich.

When I was quite small, this speed was a little daunting. Heading off to pick berries with Grandma required a jogging pace. Walking through town or a crowded market, Grandma kept an iron grip on my hand to ensure I maintained the pace. It was later, probably around the age of ten that I began to experience the payoff of walks with Grandma. Somewhere along the way I too had become fast. First to race across the grass the the playground ensured I was never 'it' for can't-touch-the-ground tag (a superior form of the game). The discipline in maintaining a pace also served me well in school cross-country meets, earning me blue ribbons and a new touch of status amongst my peers. Speed, dedication, and perseverance, these were the lessons learned in this chapter of my years with grandma.

4. Eat one hot meal a day. I get this. I really do. Look, there's room for flexibility. The meal can be taken at lunch, as Grandma's often was. No, breakfast doesn't work and brunch is not in the vocabulary. If you're out, Tim Horton (deliberate omission of the plural as per Grandma's pronunciation) counts. On a Sunday, a fried egg counts, too. Actually, you shouldn't really do much beyond fry and egg or warm some soup on a Sunday.

5. Finally, probably the most important, is: ALWAYS HAVE YOUR KEY READY. No one wants to wait in the dark, rain lashing from above, as the unprepared driver roots through her purse for a key. In Grandma's world, and now mine, this constitutes a dishonorable and barely-forgivable act. I have imparted this lesson to me spouse. We can often be heard shouting in a darkened parking lot or on the side of a wind-swept street: Do you have your key ready?

I have found Grandma's life lessons, if difficult at times, to be sound and indicative of a happy, measured life. On many occasions, I have found myself positioned beside Grandma and held up for comparison by an irksome family member. The phrase, 'You're just like Grandma,' used to boil my blood. Typically, this observation was cast upon me as evidence of my fussiness, my uneven temper, or my strong opinions. In time I have come to see 'fussy' as careful or deliberate. An uneven temper can be irksome but it also ensures a strength of character and an ability to stand up or speak out against wrong-doers and meanies. Opinions, as demonstrated above, also have their place. As does speed and when Grandma and I are compared on this point, it is often done with a wisp of admiration.

Another point which Grandma and I tended to agree upon was meat and potatoes. They are good. At a family dinner at the Macaroni Grill (As a child, I likened KD to poison and spaghetti only a step above) Grandma and I both ordered mashed potatoes and... I don't remember. The potatoes were mashed with their skins still on. I was impressed by this culinary innovation. I remember exchanging a smile with Grandma across the table. 'Meat and potatoes,' she said. 'Tastes good.'

Grandma made the best meatballs. Sadly, she is gone. I never took the opportunity to learn the technique from her capable hands but I will try to remember the other lessons she left me with. To her they added value and texture to life and so she imparted them with energy and vigor, and also as a gift, much as she used to pop a baseball-sized meatball onto my plate beside a mound of mashed potatoes and a lashing of 'shoo' (gravy). Maybe, somewhere in the remembering my hands will find a path to the perfectly round meatball. If not, it would be enough for Grandma that I tried. For her, food was mostly about warmth and love and good flavour.

To find a place to begin my Dutch meatballs, I turned to another woman who shared my Grandma's name, her faith, and her love of a hot meal. Here is a recipe that Johanna Duits gave me. Johanna is also Dutch and knows the value of a giant, delicious meatballs. Hers aren't perfectly round, but then Johanna is never labeled as 'fussy.' A good Dutch meatball will always be different depending on the maker. Nonetheless, it will always be delicious.

Johanna's Meatballs

1 pound ground beef (Johanna uses any amount of beef)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground pepper
1/2 a tsp chili powder
a little grated nutmeg
a dash of maggy (my addition because Grandma always had it in the fridge and I can't think what else she would have used it for)
1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
1 egg

Put all the ingredients in a bowl and mix them with your hands. Shape the meatballs a little smaller than baseballs. Fry them in butter or oil, turning the balls often if you want them to be round. Johanna says to crack one open to see if they're done. So I did. It takes about twenty-five minutes, depending on the size of your meatballs.


  1. Way to embrace your nature- and nurture-developed personality!
    Maggi always went in the Sunday soup at my Oma's house.

  2. Love this post Rach - and I`m loving the lessons. And I`m realizing why I get frustrated when Mike is searching for his key at the vehicle ;) Very apt that you posted on Grandma`s should have been 90th birthday.