White Trash Motherlode: Taco Salad

August 20, 2010

Gramma Rhetta was a terrific cook. Her fried chicken was the stuff of dreams, her biscuits were never leaden, and her braised green beans with bacon seduced even the fussiest of children. Mama was a lucky girl, eating grub that good.  Except for one leeetle problem.

Gramma Rhetta firmly insisted on cooking alone. She guarded the stove like some pantsuited, bouffant-haired Stalin, refusing to let anyone trespass during dinner preparations. She’d tell Mama, “Shoo! Go outside! Get your dirty little feet out of here!” any time she sauntered into the kitchen, seeking a glass of water or a snack.

If Mama bothered Gramma while she was cooking, Gramma promptly handed her a basket of ironing and told her to get lost and get busy.

The result? Mama grew up to be an expert ironer, but when it came to cooking, she knew zilch. This didn’t really bother Mama too much until she got married, and then, like a bolt of lightning, it hit her. She was screwed.

My father’s mother was also a good cook, albeit more limited than Gramma Rhetta. Grandma Helen was strictly a meat, potatoes and gravy cook, and Daddy loved nothing more than a big pot roast dinner with all of the fixings. Mama couldn’t make pot roast. Or potatoes. Or, God forbid, gravy, which takes some kind of strange alchemy to pull off.

Mama got married knowing how to make one thing: salad. Well, okay, she could make ice cubes, too, but you can’t really serve those for dinner.

Mama promptly went out and bought The Betty Crocker Cookbook (what woman didn’t own that cookbook in the 1960’s?) and began the tenuous process of navigating her way around the kitchen.

It was a rough start. There were a lot of dinners that tearfully went into the garbage; I once heard Daddy refer to that time as The Year of Salad and Sandwiches.

Wild Uncle Johnny wasn’t much help; that Christmas, he gave Mama a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Poor Mama. I can only imagine how frightening it was when she–the ruiner of muffins and scrambled eggs–cracked the spine of Julia’s tome.

Roasted Squab Chickens with Chicken Liver Canapes and Mushrooms, anyone? (page 246)  Quenelles Gratineed in White Wine Sauce? (page 188)  Cooked Artichoke Filled with Hollandaise Sauce? (423) That’s some intimidating shit, caterpillars.

Not surprisingly, Mama stuck with good old  Betty. And with typical grit and determination, she became quite an accomplished cook, mastering spaghetti with meatballs and smothered pork chops and even the dreaded gravy. Best of all, she loved a good helper in the kitchen. My sister wanted no part of it, but I loved shadowing Mama as she worked, tearing lettuce for salad and turning egg whites from liquid to puffy clouds of magic, just with a rapid spin of a beater.

I don’t think the following recipe comes from that well-worn Betty Crocker cookbook, but it was a longtime favorite of mine. Whenever Mama made this, I ate my weight in it.  I realize the dressing for the salad sounds weird, and it is, but in a lovely, retro way. Somehow, it works. Trust me.

This isn’t a fancy dish, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, like the best family recipes are. It has a cherished place in my recipe file, and once The Minxes decide that ground beef isn’t the Devil’s Instrument, I plan on dishing it up. To me, it’s love on a plate.

Taco Salad

serves 4-6

Layer on a large platter:

3/4 head of lettuce, chopped

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 avocado, diced

1/2 small onion, diced (omit if you have onion haters or substitute scallions)

1 pound ground beef, browned and drained

1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated


1 small can taco sauce (like most old recipes, there’s no measurement here–I’d use about a cup to a cup and a half)

2 tablespoons mayonnaise or sour cream

2 teaspoons packaged taco seasoning

Mix dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

Pour dressing over salad.

Add one small package taco chips, lightly crushed.

Toss and serve immediately.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Contemporary Troubadour August 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm

My husband, upon leaving for college, inherited not one but TWO cookbooks that were filled with White Trash Heaven, but circa 1980 rather than the original Betty Crocker of the 1960s. I have no idea which recipes his mother actually used before handing them down — his family does hail from the Midwest, where jello salads still reign supreme — but I’m still bowled over by the number of things you can make with condensed canned soup …


elizabeth August 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I hear you on making crowd-pleasers from time to time, because God (or, you know, Italian food purists) forgive me, but I love my mom’s ziti: jarred marinara, ricotta cheese and mozzarella that is not packed in water. But to me, it tastes like home–and no matter how evolved my palate becomes, sometimes there is no fighting childhood memories.


theUngourmet August 23, 2010 at 9:14 pm

I grew up on this same taco salad, except for the dressing. I’ve got you beat on the white trash here. We would mix together ketchup and mayo for our taco salad. Mmm Good! ;D


Kelly August 23, 2010 at 9:28 pm

We never had taco salads growing up, but we totally had the ketchup and mayo dressing! My mom called it Hundred Island and for years I thought it was a real thing. Memories!


Eva @ Eva Evolving August 25, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I laugh when you call them The Minxes!! Ha!

Husband introduced me to a good taco salad, albeit the vegetarian version. Tortilla chips, slightly crushed (or Fritos, if you prefer the real White Trash style), topped with chili beans, co jack, onions, jalapenos, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado. Sour cream and salsa on top. We eat this about once a week, because it’s easy and we always have the ingredients on hand.

In his family, these were called “Hay Stacks.” Funny.


katie o. August 29, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Reading about your mom makes me feel a whole heckuva lot better about my initial kitchen skills. I’m still no master at anything (aside from ordering take out and even those skills at times are questionable), but I haven’t had to throw a dinner out. Well, at least not until it’s been tasted.

And no offense, it this taco salad that white trashy? Mind if I borrow it for an upcoming Wednesday? :)


Lanita September 3, 2010 at 8:07 am

My grandmother gave me my copy of Betty Crocker. It is the oldest book I have. Pages are yellowed and the pictures are ancient, but apparently I use it a lot because there are pages falling out.


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