by Buck Reed
If you were to make a list of iconic American dishes, you would find meatloaf nestled somewhere between hot dogs and apple crisp. A staple in almost every Yankee Doodle kitchen, meatloaf has been put through the grinder as our country went through its trials and tribulations. From Tuesday night dinner to the Blue Plate Special, meatloaf has been following us throughout history.
Meatloaf finds its roots as far back as the 5th century in Apicius, which is the oldest collection of recipes written in Rome. This recipe called for meat scraps to be mixed with fruit, nuts and seasonings. After that almost every cuisine adopted some form of finely chopped meats mixed with a form of bread or grains and bound together with milk and eggs. It was an excellent way to use up scrap meat as well as leftovers of all sorts. More importantly, it gave us a dish that helped us use up underutilized parts of the animals we relied on for sustenance and stretched a limited amount of protein into a full meal.
In America, it was the Germans who brought the idea of a meat starch mixture to the Colonial era in the form of scrapple, The first recorded recipe for the meatloaf we eat today was in the late 1870s and called for any cold meat you had around mixed with bread soaked with milk and eggs and salt, pepper and onions. But this meatloaf was strictly for breakfast, not dinner. By the 1890s meat production hit high gear and ground beef was available to every household. Although meatloaf gained a major foothold in America, it was quickly surpassed by that new up and comer—the hamburger. We Americans do love throwing over yesterdays star for a younger, prettier one.
The Depression made meatloaf, with its time-tested ability to stretch a limited amount of meat into a meal for everyone, even more popular. In 1958, a sensible time that gave us movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and songs like Volare, we got a cook book called 365 ways to Cook Ground Beef which included over 70 recipes for meatloaf. How sensible they were remained to be seen as some called for the addition of mashed bananas and peach halves filled with ketchup. By this time, packaged ground meat was available in almost every market.
My personal brush with greatness did cross once with this dish in the form of a meatloaf sandwich, which was grilled leftover slices finished with barbecue sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s) and provolone cheese on a Kaiser roll. Proving the rule that simple is good, I got a spontaneous standing ovation for that one. Which shows that even an everyday standby might yet become a superstar dish.
If you want to tell me about your meatloaf experience or have an idea for an article, please send me a note at RGuyintheKitchen@aol.com.