My Family Recipe

On Church, Change, and Meatloaf

How I found faith again—and with it, my past life on a Quaker Oats lid.

January  8, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


It’s Saturday. I’m 15 years old, ironing a pile of my father’s dress shirts. They are all, in some way or another, variegated checks of blue and grey. I use Niagara lemon-scented starch, the kind that’ll keep a shirt paper-crisp through three church services and a hymn sing in a poorly air-conditioned building. Immanuel Baptist is over an hour’s drive away, in the pavement abdomen of Sacramento, California. It’s brick and boxy and nondescript save for a gated patch of grass on one side in which we’re allowed to play while a deacon stands watch nearby—the neighborhood was listed as a Level 3 high-risk area by Megan’s Law.

But that rarely crosses my mind. I’m too busy trying to be good. And goodness, for me, means wearing floor-length linen skirts and ironing my father’s shirts. It means avoiding the boys who scuttle off to the corner store to get contraband, i.e., Mentos and Diet Cokes (sometimes to eat and drink, sometimes to make bombs in the alley). It means keeping my head down and my (concealed) ankles crossed. But mostly, it means preparing for wifehood. This is—as I’ve been told in sonorous tones by Mrs. S, a makeup-less woman who looks like the human version of a communion wafer—my highest calling.

And I believe her.

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Top Comment:
“It also resonated deeply with me-- I've recently left the church after having spent my whole life doing church-y things (including, in my case, seminary and being a pastor). It is disorienting in some ways, but like you, I have found grace and beauty in so many unexpected places, most surprisingly, in myself. I have a framed quote from Flannery O'Connor sitting on my bookshelf that says, "Don't expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty." Giving up "doing church" for me was giving up certainty, but that didn't mean that faith went out the window. (Also, I firmly believe that feeding people is about as close to what Jesus was actually up to as you can get- I think when Jesus says "feed my sheep" at the end of John, he meant it to be taken literally.)”
— Kathleen R.
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With an earnestness that would’ve made Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s look like she wasn’t even trying, I take up housework like, well, it’s my religion. I mop, polish, and read heavily underlined books on child-rearing and pious homemaking with words like “Amen” and “Lord, forgive me” scribbled in the margins. But most of all, I cook.

Maybe it’s an undercover form of self-expression in my family’s culture of rules and binding contracts. Or maybe I just live for the looks on people’s faces when I bring a perfect, crispy-skinned chicken to the table, bathed in schmaltz and wreathed in mustard-lacquered potatoes. They’re amazed by the bird, but also by me, who weighed just about as much, twiggily swathed in a second-hand Laura Ashley dress. Even at 15, I tick off the days till theres a husband and children of my own—seven, eight, maybe nine—on the other side of all this playing-house.

On Sunday, I sneak out of the nearly two-hour service to check on our midday meal. Mrs. M nods at me, baby on her hip, as I leave. This is the unwritten code of conduct, the formula for divine approval: bobbing out the door after the doxology to slip in a lattice pie, homemade rolls, a honey-glazed ham. And of all those pleas ascending to the stained ceiling during intercessory prayer, over half of them are that crusts won’t be burnt or vegetables underdone.


I think about this sometimes—the years and years of whole Saturdays we spent preparing for Sabbaths. Sabbaths that mandated we work as little as possible. (On the seventh day He rested.) Sabbaths spent in meek fellowship pretending there hadn’t been a sweat-soaked, curse-ridden dress rehearsal for it all. We’d gather around folding tables, a vast indoor picnic of the devout, lunching on ham and rolls.

Or, in this case, meatloaf. My mother didn’t usually stick to the recipe, even though she pulled it out for reference. It was printed on the back of an old Quaker Oats lid. One day, someone must’ve mistaken the lid for garbage and tossed it—because it disappeared. Which was okay. We had it memorized: ground meat, powdered mustard, an egg for binding, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, dried parsley, and then a bumper crop’s worth of rolled oats. Everything was unceremoniously tossed in a bowl and mashed. By hand. The meat was usually still partially frozen, as we lived too far from the grocery store to have just-bought ground pork, and sometimes my fingers would lose all feeling by the time everything had been incorporated. That’s how I knew it was ready. I’d mold it into some approximation of an oval and cloak the entire thing in Heinz ketchup.

Everyone loved it. And that in turn made me feel loved, too.

There was my history, stamped into a mound of minced meat. Years of desperate conformity— bleached and starched, toting a Bible you couldn’t carry with one hand. The need to perform and check things off a bulleted to-do list. And there I was, longing for heavenly approval, human approval, molding meat into a perfect oval, saying all the right things on the outside but screaming on the inside.

Until suddenly, in my late teens, my family changed churches and all of this began to slip away. God met us in our humanity. We still went to church on Sunday, but wore pants instead of dresses and stopped for In-N-Out on the way home. Naturally this series of alterations got to the meatloaf, too.

“What if we changed up the recipe?” I asked my mother one day. Her face grew pallid.

“And did what?” she asked. I showed her a Bon Appétit rendition that involved diced apricots, pancetta, and real live, vibrantly green Italian parsley. “The family won’t like it.”

“Well, maybe we will,” I said. And in that moment the meatloaf was released from the past into the present. Though, in truth, it tasted a little too…too. Like seeing a dear friend with garishly large false lashes and a diamond tiara. We missed our old sticky, tomato-topped standby with the unpretentious salt and pepper seasoning.


I’ve lived in New York for the better part of three years now. And, can I be honest? I’m kind of a mess spiritually. Sometimes I just want to iron shirts. Sometimes I feel like I’ve betrayed the people who stood behind all those pulpits telling me that grace happened like a dry cleaning ticket, after X number of linen skirts, X number of babies changed, X amount of meals cooked. Sometimes I find myself walking to the cathedral on 65th and Central Park West. The one with the red doors and candles lining the nave and the pastor who says I don’t have to agree with him. He says grace is enormous and overwhelming and we won’t have to force ourselves to believe it when we see it. We just will.

I don’t actually attend church. I’m still searching. Often, it's for the me safely cloistered behind my parent’s doors, reading my bonded leather King James Version Bible, my hair tied back to copy Jennifer Ehle’s in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. I miss that version of me. Mostly, though, it’s for the goodness that I’ve started seeing in the most unlikely places. Unkempt, derelict, flat-out ugly places. Like my kitchen on a Tuesday night when a hymn gets stuck in my head and I drink too much red wine and have no intention of doing the dishes.

Church is for the me safely cloistered behind my parent’s doors, reading my bonded leather King James Version Bible, my hair tied back to copy Jennifer Ehle’s in the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. I miss that version of me.

And maybe that’s where the meatloaf comes in and treads holy ground with me. Where self-realization starts looking less like rule-following and more like a trust fall. I invite people to my apartment and don’t do anything but light a stubby candle and shove the books to the side. I ask them to sit on wobbly old chairs and drink out of mismatched glasses, and I let them see me as I am. I say, “Here, will you grate the cheese?”

Which reminds me: I put cheese in my meatloaf now. And thyme. And caramelized onions. The way I cook my family’s favorite recipe these days might just be its best unorthodox iteration yet. And they agree. It’s tender and herbed, and no one can get enough of the glaze or believe me when I tell them it’s just two ingredients. But really, when all’s said and done, it’s still the honest and stripped-down oversized patty from the Quaker Oats lid—and it always will be.

Because true goodness, the kind with longevity, will make it in the end. That’s why this dish, after so many fatal attempts at earning holiness, is the new symbol of my liberty. Not a liberty from everything I once was because I’m too connected to my past to dismiss it. This is a liberty that tells me my worth has been there the whole time, right in step with all the churches and self-doubt and cans of starch, given to me from the very start. Not earned, but a gift.

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Maggie Slover

Written by: Maggie Slover

38 Comments

Alex E. October 23, 2019
Maggie, I just stumbled across this doing some research and I'm so glad I stuck around to read it. What a story! This is so beautifully written and provides such a vibrant glimpse into your past (and current) life. Thank you for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. October 23, 2019
Thank you Alex, that means so much!
 
Amelia R. January 15, 2019
This is so beautiful.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Thank you dear heart!
 
Aja A. January 13, 2019
Enjoyed reading every line of this. Felt like I was ironing along right there with you. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Aw thank you Aja! This is the kindest.
 
Annie R. January 13, 2019
Oh my gosh! Thank you writing this! I took in every single part. Your willing to be honest and except instead of being bitter or hiding❤️😭 I think so many people can benefit from this post. That subculture we were raised in..so unhealthy in SO MANY WAYS. It’s been disabling trying to come out and find the truth. I never wanted that God that was full of rules, so strict, so not able to mesh with the world we lived in. And you know what’s funny?! They constantly said...don’t be worldly. Do you know what the definition of worldly is? To put something more important than God...and that’s exactly what all the “rules” were that we had. I have found God...but not that one we grew up with. God is full of love and acceptance, and hope! I’m so thankful I found the true God. Much love to you friend...grateful for the times we had together growing up❤️❤️
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
SUCH a gift to have someone who gets your history along for the ride. Love to you too. Thank you for this kind comment, it made my day xx
 
Casey S. January 13, 2019
What a marvelous read; your voice is effervescent and bright, just like you. Thank you for sharing your experience, I can’t wait to read the sequel!
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Thank you so much love
 
Melody D. January 13, 2019
Darling Maggie,
I feel as if I have had a therapy session! If only every rebellious preacher’s kid(of which I am one) could read this beautiful expression of self acceptance!! You are my new literary crush!
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Wow I want to hear more of your story Melody! Glad it resonated with you. Thank you for this lovely comment.
 
Cait K. January 13, 2019
This is a beautiful essay, and I'm going to try your recipe! It will actually be my first meatloaf ;)
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Thank you dear Cait!!! Really? SO honored. You'll be brilliant xo
 
Peter January 13, 2019
Looking forward to trying the recipe. If it’s one-tenth as good as your writing, the meatloaf will be a real crowd-pleaser....just like your eloquent essay. Thanks for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Thank you Peter! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Hope you like the recipe!
 
LeslieJane January 13, 2019
What gorgeous writing, and compassion and sympathy for yourself. This recipe will now become a hymn for me. Thank you with all my heart.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 15, 2019
Leslie this is the kindest—I love the idea of it becoming a hymn. Thank you for reading.
 
Eric K. January 9, 2019
Your language is so chewy, Maggie.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 10, 2019
Ah Eric. TY for making sure I didn't overbake.
 
Andrew J. January 9, 2019
Dear Maggie, I am so proud of you and the grace with which you have navigated the last few years. Reading this was a wash of beautiful and painful emotions over the growing pains we have shared over the last decade, and no small degree of shock over how good your writing is -- I don't know what I expected, given that some of your text messages are worthy of publishing and sometimes require the expansion of my vocabulary. Love you much. I expect meatloaf when I visit! ;)
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 10, 2019
Love you friend! So much gratitude for you
 
Merrill S. January 9, 2019
Maggie, thank you for your bravery in writing this piece, and for trusting all of us enough to share such a deeply personal account. Your meatloaf sounds wonderful -- in all senses of the word. I can't wait to try it!
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 9, 2019
This means so much Merrill! Thank you for reading.
 
Kathleen R. January 9, 2019
Don't mind me, I'm just over here crying into my tea. What a beautiful, deeply touching essay. It also resonated deeply with me-- I've recently left the church after having spent my whole life doing church-y things (including, in my case, seminary and being a pastor). It is disorienting in some ways, but like you, I have found grace and beauty in so many unexpected places, most surprisingly, in myself. I have a framed quote from Flannery O'Connor sitting on my bookshelf that says, "Don't expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty." Giving up "doing church" for me was giving up certainty, but that didn't mean that faith went out the window. (Also, I firmly believe that feeding people is about as close to what Jesus was actually up to as you can get- I think when Jesus says "feed my sheep" at the end of John, he meant it to be taken literally.)
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 9, 2019
Wow what an enormous step. Disorienting is exactly the word. I love this quote so much and am going to frame it too as a reminder. Thank you Kathleen!
 
Erica V. January 8, 2019
Not sure how an essay about meatloaf could have brought tears to my eyes but it did! I am very familiar with the spiritual culture you were raised in and I am glad you have forged a path that brings you peace. It was a lovely piece of writing and I am looking forward to making your recipe as well. Thank you Maggie.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 9, 2019
So glad it resonated with you! Let me know how it goes :)
 
Brinda A. January 8, 2019
Gave me chills, brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so much for sharing this, Maggie.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 9, 2019
Aw, thank you <3
 
Joanna S. January 8, 2019
I love this piece, maggie. there are one million facets to an experience like this and you've written about it so artfully. thank you for sharing it with us.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 9, 2019
Really grateful for all your help and kind words.
 
Hana A. January 8, 2019
What a rich and beautiful piece, Miss Maggie. Thank you for sharing a part of your history with us.

PS: Please invite us over for meatloaf one day.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 8, 2019
Yes! My new mustard linen napkins or begging to be broken out. Thanks lovely lady for the sweet words.
 
Erin A. January 8, 2019
This is such a beautiful piece, Maggie.
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 8, 2019
That means so much Erin!
 
Ella Q. January 8, 2019
Maggie, this is SO wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing it!
 
Author Comment
Maggie S. January 8, 2019
Thank you so much dear Ella.