A lot of people have a favorite comfort food. Mine isn't flashy, but it's fabulous: hamburger and scalloped potato hot dish. It's good, old-fashioned pantry cooking from what's on hand — hamburger, potatoes and any "cream of ..." soup.
All the women in my mother's family made this with amazing consistency, though I still can't make it as my grandmother, great-aunts, aunts and mom did. It would be served after a long day of chores or for a large gathering of friends and relatives at a confirmation or graduation.
I grew up eating Grandma Sorum's version and own the Pyrex baking dishes she used. Every summer I spent time on her farm, and after picking weeds in her garden I'd watch her expertly and rapidly peel potatoes. Gnarled, arthritic hands slowed her down but didn't stop her.
Both my grandma and mom told me stories about Great-Aunt Nora, who repeatedly won the potato peeling contest at the county fair. According to them, competition was fierce. Norwegian Lutheran women in the community trained weeks before the competition, hoping to out-peel my great-aunt.
Fast forward to 2007 when I was caring for my husband, Aaron, who had been given little chance of surviving cancer. The multiple surgeries, hospital stays and chemotherapy took a toll on him that is all too familiar to most cancer patients. He lost his appetite and more than 80 pounds. Nothing I cooked appealed to him, so I became an expert at finding high-fat foods in the grocery store that would put meat on his bones. Nothing worked.
Nothing, that is, until my mom — who came from a long line of potato peeling champions — visited. She stayed two weeks and, as only a mom can do, cared for us: she cleaned, cooked and organized everything that had been chaotic and overwhelming into an oasis of peace, healing and love. And she made hot dish.
Meatballs and gravy, wild rice hot dish, turkey hot dish, hamburger hot dish, and hamburger and scalloped potato hot dish. Not surprisingly, Aaron loved and ate them all. My lifelong favorite became his new favorite. To ensure that the hot dish would pack on as many pounds as possible, my mom replaced the 2 percent milk with heavy cream. She made huge batches of everything and packed our freezer with serving-size containers.
Months later, when Aaron was feeling better and we seemed to be heading toward a miraculous recovery, we were still eating those frozen containers of love. When we pulled the last tub from the freezer, I think we both got a bit misty-eyed.
The potato peeling legacy of Lutheran women had done its job. The women in my family played a significant role in getting us through his cancer misadventure. When I asked my mom (who still makes this) for the recipe, she just rattled off the ingredients: ground beef, potatoes, onion, cream of mushroom soup, milk; bake at 350 degrees until done. Freezes well and can make in large quantities.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers