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.

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle August 20, 2010 at 5:34 pm

“Get lost and get busy.” I’m gonna totally use that. : ) And the taco salad sounds great too!


C @ Kid Things August 20, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Now you have me craving a taco salad, which I haven’t had in a long time. I’m afraid the pizza we’re having tonight just isn’t going to compare now.


Jennifer August 20, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Yum. I think this is something I could get behind.


Corinne August 20, 2010 at 6:04 pm

My mother in law makes a mean taco salad that sounds very similar :) Thank goodness for mother’s who like helpers in the kitchen… mine had us chopping as soon as we could reach the counter I think!


Leslie August 20, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Because my father swears that he was making pie crust by age four, we were encouraged (that’s too tame a verb) to cook early on. I worked my way through Betty Crocker in college, from delicious to doozy. But some of my all-time favorites come from my mother’s recipe cards, with lots of ingredients measured in cans.


Heather August 20, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Just the thought of Julia Child sends shivers down my spine. That woman intimidates me like no other. I’ll stick with your dreaded Rachel Ray thank you very much!!
A good old fashioned taco salad:) Sprinkle a few crushed tortilla chips on top and I’m in heaven!


Foodiewife August 20, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I will never tire of tacos. I love them. I don’t find the dressing the least bit weird. I must have had the same BC book your mom had. While I love to branch out and try recipes that challenge me with fresh ingredients blah, blah blah… I will always love comfort food. Go Betty! BTW, I’ve been watching your adventures in NY with Phoo-D. Great stories. Great pics.


Emily August 20, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Your storytelling is so much fun. You’re a great writer. I could totally envision your grandma protecting her stove. I love tacos. My husband’s not a huge fan but he can deal with them. It’s more the messiness that bothers him, but he’s really weird about messy things. I can’t wait for the reality check he’s going to have when we have kids! ;)


Cheryl @ Mommypants August 20, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I really loved this post. I felt like I should be sitting at your kitchen counter, sipping a drink, while you made me this taco salad and spun that tale about your mother and grandmother. Sigh.


Sherri August 21, 2010 at 2:29 am

I love this story…. love it. And …. awesome – the salad, that is – yummy, messy, mix it up goodness (is that a word?) – love easy, semi-decadent, semi-good for you, homemade “fast food” :-).


Bryan August 21, 2010 at 5:10 am

I LOVE any post in the “White Trash Motherload” series! I enjoy the little peek into your past always tons of fun. Plus this recipe rocks! I think I could eat my weight in it too.


Phoo-d August 21, 2010 at 6:49 am

I always loved taco salad night as a kid. Such a great combination of cheese, chips and beef. Yum! Thank goodness for mothers that let us into their kitchens!


Mary Lee August 21, 2010 at 9:37 am

Can’t even guess how much of this stuff my family has shoved in through the years. Probably enough salt in there to brine our intestines.

Oh, I do love it when you come out with the old pictures and the white trash motherlode!


Cathy August 21, 2010 at 9:52 am

I remember my mom going through experiments as she was teaching herself how to bake. The beauty of her situation was that any failure was promptly thrown into the fire. Yes – we had a wood stove to cook on and she’d just open up that lid and plop it right in.


Tiffany August 21, 2010 at 11:57 am

I L-O-V-E love taco salad; I’m going to have to try that dressing!!


M @ Betty Crapper August 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm

This made me smile, always a good thing. I can just picture your poor mother opening Julia’s cookbook for the first time. Poor thing. I’m glad she discovered Betty and learned how to cook.


Liz August 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

HA! FINALLY! A recipe I can say I KNOW…my own similar version, anyways….oh, and if you count the ice cubes mentioned, then that would be 2.


Allison @ Alli n Son August 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Your stories make your recipes magical. Seriously.


Maria August 21, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I love taco salad, although I would probably substitute ground beef for ground turkey. You can’t tell the difference in tacos!


Tracey - JustAnotherMommyBlog August 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Wait, did you just call me a caterpillar?

Thankfully, you did not disappoint in your humor. I officially love you.

And I feel really bad for your poor Momma. Making a note to teach kids more complex meals…


Erica@PinesLakeRedhead August 21, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Oh, that sounds yummy. I would substitute pinto beans though because we all know that kidney beans are truly the instrument of the devil.

I too own a cherished copy of Betty’s cookbook. I laughed when I got it as a wedding present but it really is a go-to cookbook for an old standard recipe.


Chaya August 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Some of your descriptions, both grandmas, fit my mother. It brings back loads of memories.

The taco salad sounds delicious.


rebecca August 21, 2010 at 7:56 pm

wow your new site rocks and your funny as ever so sorry its been so long Rebecca


Privilege of Parenting August 21, 2010 at 11:33 pm

Love the Stalin in pantsuit image… lot of food for thought as to why my mom never mastered the art of cooking when my Buby seemed to know her way around the kitchen pretty well… Hmmm. And the taco salad will definitely happen soon in my kitchen.


Ingrid August 21, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Love your taco salad recipe. I too would probably substitute for ground turkey. :)


~Laura August 22, 2010 at 5:29 am

My favorite posts of yours are the ones that tell stories about your family. It brings back my own memories so clearly. What a great way to chronicle these memories for your girls to cherish someday.


Christie @ Fresh Local and Best August 22, 2010 at 5:49 am

Grandma Rhetta sounds like my mom who was utterly annoyed with me sauntering into her sanctuary, which is why I’m not as familiar with Asian cuisine as I should be.

This taco salad sounds delish! I like that taco seasoning is added to the dressing, and all of the flavors are complementary. It’s no wonder the Minxes love this so much.


Maureen@IslandRoar August 22, 2010 at 7:04 am

Kudos to your mom for keeping on trying. My mom never became much of a cook altho her mom really was. My sister and I, not so much. But I’m a really good baker. This taco salad sounds so good, even the dressing!


subWOW August 22, 2010 at 8:24 am

Your mom self-learned everything? Amazing! Perhaps there is hope in me? I have a Betty Crocker cookbook as well. LOL.

And yes indeed, Julia Child’s book probably made her go into a panic!


faemom August 22, 2010 at 2:36 pm

I wish I had watched my mom cook as a kid. But I didn’t, so I make it up as I go. I can’t wait to try this out.


Heather of the EO August 22, 2010 at 5:49 pm

You are one REALLY good story-teller.

Also. Taco salad is one of my favorites. I’m from rural Minnesota, so my love for all things tossed together should come as no surprise :)


Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday August 22, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Did your mom make jell-o or marshmallow salads too? I never understood either of those dishes or how they could be consider a salad.


Alexandra August 22, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Have you ever met someone you feel instantly at ease with?

That’s how this blog is for me.

I’ve only been here a few times, but I feel comfortable so quickly.


camilla August 23, 2010 at 1:30 am

Now how could you NOT like that salad? The women in your family are so strong minded I love it!


Wendi @ Bon Appetit Hon August 23, 2010 at 5:37 am

I love hearing your Gramma Rhetta stories. And thank you for bringing back the WTM. My Monday needed a kick in the pants.


Velva August 23, 2010 at 5:49 am

I can dig a good taco salad. Your post made me think of the pressure women had 50’s-60’s to really learn to cook-There does not seem to much pressure to learn to cook these days. Not sure that’s a good thing.


SuziCate August 23, 2010 at 6:07 am

I LOVE taco salad…hadn’t decided what to make for dinner tonight; now, I knlw!


Katie@Cozydelicious August 23, 2010 at 6:38 am

I love taco salad – and I love your story even more. Your grandma sounds just like mine… and my Mom never learned to cook either! (I managed to break down the solo-kitchen barrier as a kid, and learned my grandmother’s recipes, but it took grandbaby cuteness!)


Gale August 23, 2010 at 8:08 am

The taco salad I grew up on was similar to this, but used Fritos and Catalina dressing. I still love it!


Futureblackmail August 23, 2010 at 9:08 am

As someone who eats their tacos with miracle whip instead of sour cream – the dressing sounds divine!


Maria @BOREDmommy August 23, 2010 at 9:15 am

Think it’s time I tired taco salad.


Maria @BOREDmommy August 23, 2010 at 9:15 am

Crap. I meant tried – TRIED taco salad. Oy.


Justine August 23, 2010 at 10:11 am

Your Gramma sounds like my aunt who refused to let anyone in the kitchen while she cooked. And she was an Ah-Ma-Zing cook too so her recipes died with her. Argh! WTH!

As usual LOVE your story behind the recipe, and judging from how easy it is, it just might make it to our dinner table as well. Thanks for sharing!


Belinda Munoz + The Halfway Point August 23, 2010 at 10:47 am

I just love this post. I love recreating dishes by loved ones from memory (which for me often turn out nothing like I remember). I’ve been asking my aunts, in-laws and mom for their best recipes because range in teh kitcken needs some serious broadening. I laughed at the title of this post because my mother-in-law just gave me her copy of Peg Bracken’s “The I Hate to Cook Book” — the very same one she used to feed her firstborn (born when she was 20), twins that came 11 months later and baby who came 7 years later. There’s so much affection that goes through even something as simple a taco salad. Thanks for such a heart-warming post!


Donna August 23, 2010 at 11:03 am

My mum went to work when I was 12 and it became my job to get dinner on the table in the evening. Lucky for me, Mum was a good teacher. I learned to make bread (a dozen or more loaves at a time), jams, jellies, relishes, pies, cakes and basic home cooking. I also learned how to stretch a small amount to feed a multitude. My only failure – I never could figure out how to stretch a small can of tuna to make 8 sandwiches. I branched out on my own and became a very good cook. I raised both my daughters helping in the kitchen, making absolutely everything from scratch, and none of it “took”. To my everlasting sorrow, neither of my daughters have much interest in cooking.


Jessica August 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

Too funny!!


Jane August 23, 2010 at 11:28 am

And another way to get beans into my kids. They think that *beans* are the devil’s instrument. I’ve even resorted to singing that nasty little rhyme “Beans, beans the magical fruit….” over and over, thinking that if they thought it might bring on some tooting (they are boys, after all) beams would appear more attractive. But covered in cheese and chips and dressing? This just might be a winner! Wish me luck!


Evan @swEEts August 23, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I’m not sure who exactly is in that picture but shes gorgeous! And I love taco salad.. quick, easy and fantastic! Taco salad day at school was always my favorite :)


Megan August 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Some of my most loved recipes come from my mother’s kitchen. I used to look in awe at her gourmet cookbooks. We rarely ever got home-style cooking in our house…which when I was a kid, always begrudged as I (at times) choked down a new styled gourmet dish… I usually just wanted mac & cheese. Now older though, I seriously appreciate all of the unique tastes I had to try as a child. It has made me into the cook I am now. Thanks for the post (and the flashback)! Your salad sounds very yummy, I can definitely see how it is a crowd pleaser! Delicious!


TKW August 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Angela: Oh yes, we had the jello salads! Those are definitely fodder for future White Trash Motherlode posts!

Evan–thank you for the compliment on the picture. That’s my Mama!

Yet again, you readers ROCK. I’m glad you like the Motherlode posts…I always have a ball writing them.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: