If the meat loaves were going to be entered in the contest, they had to be on the judges’ table by 6:30. Spectators watched the clock, wondering how many loaves were yet to arrive. For the first time in the history of the Annual Meat Loaf Cook-Off, founded a dozen years ago by Arty and Amy Tavano, the number of entries were down from the previous year, with 15 meat loaves in competition. However, there was still more meat than the hungry spectators could possibly consume, so the decline in participants caused no decline in the collective spirits, which were high. This was serious competition, and serious fun. People milled about outside, chatting, drinking, buying official cook-off T-shirts and hoodies, and joking about the creepy face of Jesus painted on the neighboring church. (Aside: What is up with the murals on the outside of South Portland’s Holy Cross Church? They’re scary. They look like something you’d find painted on a renegade barrio priest’s van in 1977 Los Angeles. I know it’s a blood religion, but come on!)
Riley Shryock, who runs the kitchen at Street and Company, was the last person to arrive with an entry (or is it entrée?), mini-meat loaves individually baked in cupcake papers. Soon after, the three judges began their difficult task. They sequestered themselves in the Tavanos’ cozy home to sample, discuss, debate, and vote on all the loaves. There was a lot to consider. Besides Shryock’s individually wrapped loaves there was a Stroganoff Loaf, a fairly traditional meat loaf topped with a sour cream sauce, mushrooms, and egg noodles; a Texas meat loaf, made with salsa and jalapenos; a so-called white trash loaf, topped with Apple Jacks cereal; an end-of-the-world-themed Mayan meatloaf, sculpted into a pyramid (not a tie-in to the recent movie 2012); a loaf called the “Mother-Ducker”, which was made from duck meat, and several others. Side dishes — including mashed spuds (of course); baked, bread-crumb topped, Southern-style macaroni and cheese; and the most delicious sweet potatoes I’ve ever had north of the Mason-Dixon Line — were judged in a separate category.
The food-engineering accomplishment of the night were the so-called “Carny Loaves.” Jalapeno cheese was pressed around a stick, and then surrounded by a traditional meat loaf mix. These were then wrapped in foil and deep-fried. The final step was to roll them in corn meal, and then fry the whole shooting match in bacon grease. The end result was a meat loaf disguised as a corndog, but instead of the traditional mustard-drenched paintbrush to dress the side of a corndog, there was a ketchup-dispensing paintbrush. No, they were not good for you, not even a little bit, but they were friggin’ delicious, and fun to eat.
Finally, with a fire lit and a bottle of bourbon making its way around the sated crowd, the judges emerged to announce the results. Since it is a friendly competition, everyone won something. The Carny Loaves, my personal favorite, won “Best Party in Your Mouth,” which I thought was a rip-off, but the chef had prevailed in the competition before, and you can’t win them all. Instead, it was the Mother-Ducker that prevailed, winning the top prize (a stuffed polar bear). Duck is too greasy for me to enjoy usually, unless it’s been fried to hell in a good Chinese restaurant, but the Mother-Ducker was ambitious and complex, so I could see how it garnered the judges’ votes. All in all, it was a stomach-filling, artery-clogging good time. Bocuse d’Or, eat your heart out.
Rick Wormwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.