Our Dinnertime in America series features snapshots of families across the country and what they put on their tables. Offered in partnership with The Six O’Clock Scramble’s Family Dinner Challenge, stories will run Wednesdays and Fridays through September. Twitter #DinnertimeInAmerica, Pinterest: Dinnertime in America
When Mathew Tolbert was growing up in San Angelo, Texas, he’d be sent into the yard to collect mesquite. The thorny wood grows rampant in the dry Texas climate and the Tolberts used its aromatic brush to smoke their sausage and Sunday briskets.
“West Texas is filled with mesquite,” Mathew says. “I always figured that West Texas, we could export all our mesquite and get rich.”
Weeknight dinners happened around the television, with Mathew and his parents pulling snack tables up in front of the news. Chicken fried steak and chicken fried venison were menu staples, Mathew says, as well as creamy chicken casseroles topped with bacon bits. French fries or baked potatoes were the standard side dish.
“It’s meat and potatoes in West Texas,” he says. “I don’t remember having too many greens. If anything it might be something like green beans.”
Mathew’s wife Ashley grew up exactly the opposite. From a large Italian family in upstate New York, she says they had “greens and beans” most nights, with the family — including her uncle and grandmother — gathered around one big table. On Sundays, she says, a couple dozen relatives would show up.
Today, Mathew, 28, and Ashley, 27, share a table with their two sons, 2-year-old Andrew and 1-year-old Alexander. They live on base at Goodfellow Air Force Base, a joint command where Mathew is an Army staff sergeant. Both parents are big fans of family dinner, but Ashley says Matt is the one who drives it.
“I come home, I take off the uniform and it gives me a chance to sit down,” he says. “The boys are still young, but I want to leave that impression on their young memories that we take the time to be a family and have each other’s company.”
Ashley, who stays home with the boys, is in charge of meals, and for the most part, it’s a slightly modified West Texas diet. Meaning meat. Almost every night. Steak, chicken, bratwurst, pork tenderloin. Mostly cooked on the grill.
“Have you ever been to Texas?” Ashley says. “It’s hot. All year. Except for about two days. So we grill a lot.”
Some of that meat comes from her father-in-law, who like many in San Angelo is an avid hunter. When he bags deer, he’ll bring the Tolberts venison in all shapes and sizes: ground, made into sausage, scraps for stew, pounded thin for chicken fried venison.
“I have 30 pounds of venison in my deep freezer right now,” Ashley says. “We’re not the only ones in the neighborhood with a freezer full of deer.”
“A lot of people I know don’t eat together,” she says. “A lot of military families, mom stays home and tries to raise the little ones. And by the time dinner comes they’re just burnt out. So they eat in front of the TV. … I wanted to inspire people that sitting down for 30 minutes at the least is really not that difficult.”
Ashley’s military organization – she met her husband when she was a signals intelligence analyst in the Army — makes it seem easy. Monday is Mexican, Tuesday is chicken, Wednesday is pork, Thursday pork or chicken, Friday pizza or pasta. Saturday is a free for all. If you forget, you can always check the menu board that hangs in the kitchen.
Mexican night means fajitas, tacos or some variation of them, such as Ashley’s taco burgers. Tortillas come from a little bakery down the street. The Tolberts might also have tamales, brought by Matt’s grandfather, a construction worker who gets them from the Mexican crews he works with.
And of course, there is chili. This is Texas after all. Though official state bans beans in Texas chili, Matt says his grandma’s chili always had beans – pintos – and an extra big dash of spice.
“Out here in West Texas you’re going to get a lot of influence from Mexico,” he says. “You might make a chili or steak and it has a spicier flavor.”
Following her “greens and beans” upbringing, Ashley pushes the chili thing even beyond beans. Corn, green beans, bell peppers, it all goes into her chili, which she makes in a big batch once a month. She says it’s her “secret recipe” and one that she’s learned to keep secret from the neighbors.
“If I serve my chili when we have company I get very odd stares,” she says. “It’s a ‘What is this?’ look. But that’s how I grew up in the north, with beans and vegetables in the chili.”
Monday is always Mexican food night for the Tolberts of San Angelo, Texas. To change things up, mom Ashley sometimes serves this riff on traditional tacos. She prides herself on the spice mixture, which gives the burgers her personal touch. Grill or pan fry these burgers and serve with salsa instead of ketchup.
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 tablespoons taco seasoning
- 1/2 onion chopped very fine
- 1/2 bell pepper (red or green), chopped
- 3/4 cup cheese, sharp cheddar, monterey Jack or a combination, grated
- A few dashes Worcestershire
For seasoning, mix all ingredients together well.*
For burgers, in a medium bowl, mix everything except the Worcestershire sauce.
Add a few dashes of Worcestershire.
Form into patties about the size of a hockey puck for large burgers, about 3/4 of that for medium.
Grill the burgers or fry them in an iron skillet.
*To make tacos, add 2 tablespoons seasoning and 2/3 cup of water to 1 pound of meat.