The American meatloaf is the evolutionary result of the American industrialization of the slaughterhouse. Industrialization brought down the cost of meats and promoted the distribution of meat products across the nation. For decades, carcasses in whole, half or quarter cuts were shipped from central points to any city or butcher shop. Times change and the modern version of shipping meats is more specialized, with specific parts aggregated into one package and shipped in cardboard boxes. Only specialty butcher shops work with whole carcasses today. Within this business structure, meatloaf is one of the most economical meat dishes that can be assembled at home.
Meatloaf is part of a minced meat tradition that goes back at least two millennia. The Romans had a recipe. With the technology of a knife or a cleaver with a durable sharp edge, even the toughest and most undesirable meats could be reduced to good, tasty recipes. The most difficult cuts (ears, nose, and tails) were processed into sausages but the tough pieces of muscle could be made tender too by fine dicing. Minced meat recipes can be found in every culture but the variations of meatloaf, using the meats and ingredients at hand, are favored dishes in Europe, South America, Africa, and the Near East. In Lebanon, the dish will be minced lamb or lamb mixed with beef as kofte while in the Philippines, a dish called embotido and is made from ground pork stuffed with hardboiled eggs. The variations of minced meat recipes across the world depend on the availability of inexpensive ingredients in the local economy.
The American Meatloaf gained prominence in home kitchens during the Great Depression, after the 1928 Stock Market Crash. Rationing during WWII confirmed its status as a gut filling dish that could be served using many variations. The recipe of minced meat could be stretched with breadcrumbs of any bread, stale cereal, or crushed crackers. Saltines were popular. The dish could be enhanced with ketchup, jelly, barbeque sauce, mashed potatoes, and spices. Even more, immigrant traditions could add their own flair to the minced meat dish.
The United States is a melting pot and meatloaf is a unique example. The mid-twentieth century witnessed the rise of advice columnists, who began as a staple in immigrant newspapers on matters of assimilation and who evolved into a nationwide ethos of community and behavior. Ann Landers and Dear Abby, competing sisters, were some of the most trusted voices in American print during their tenures. Ann Landers printed her meatloaf recipe in her column and the dish became an enduring sensation. In the decades since, Ann Lander’s recipe (or some near variation) has become the American meatloaf:
2 pounds ground beef
1 1/2 cup bread crumbs
3/4 cup ketchup
1 teaspoon Accent® seasoning mix
1/2 cup warm water
1 package dry onion soup mix
2 slices bacon
1 can (8 ounce size) tomato sauce
Mix all the ingredients except for the bacon and the tomato sauce. Form a loaf and place in pan. Lay bacon on top and pour sauce over the loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.
First, the recipe is not kosher or halal. Second, Accent and onion soup mixes are high quantity MSG products, which makes the dish particularly tasty, yet makes it untenable for those avoiding MSG. Most of the ingredients are bagged, boxed, or canned too. Only the egg and the beef need to be fresh, making this recipe clearly rooted in the supermarket cuisine of the mid to late twentieth century.
For a current recipe, the history of meatloaf points to a dish of minced meat and local ingredients; local, as in what is in your refrigerator. Instead of dry mixes, add the liquid from leftover soup or broth. Add a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar and a raw egg. If you don’t have stale bread to turn into breadcrumbs, mashed potatoes work great with a little elbow grease. Any ground meat will do, from beef, pork, and lamb to turkey, chicken, wild game or fowl. Along with salt and pepper, any typical spice combination in the cabinet will work.
As a dish, meatloaf ingredients are flexible to your tastes and traditions. Jalapenos on top – why not? Some European recipes stuff the loaf with olives, East Europeans stuff with hardboiled eggs like the Filipinos do.
Use your hands to mix this recipe. If you want to cook the fat out by letting it pool in the pan, then use less breadcrumbs.
If you want to freeze the dish for later, only cook for ½ hour. Let cool and wrap in freezer paper. Use within six months. Defrost overnight in refrigerator and cook for ½ hour (@ 350) to serve.
2 lbs ground meats
1 cup of broth
2 TBS grape must* (Italian Saba) and 2 TBS red wine vinegar
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs
1-2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
½ tsp each: basil, thyme and celery seed
Tomato sauce or any gravy
Mix in one ingredient at a time (all spices together though), leaving tomato sauce aside. Form loaf and place in greased bread pan. Pour tomato sauce on top and cook 1 hour at 350 degrees. Recipe doubles easily.
*thickened grape juice