Meatloaf: America’s Comfort Food

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“Meat loaf,” reads the Dictionary of American Food & Drink, “is a baked loaf of chopped meat and bread” first documented in 1899.


Just one sentence for an iconic American dish, the centerpiece of so many Blue Plate Specials? Eleven words on a dish that evokes comfort.. home… Mom?

I did more research.

It turns out meatloaf dates back to the ancient Romans, who were mincing cooked meats like  peacock and mixing them with bread as early as the 5th century. The American innovation — after the Industrial Revolution brought meat grinders and refrigeration into the home – was to use RAW meat. A precursor was the “Cannelon” –my 1918 Fanny Farmer Cookbook describes it as a loaf of ground beef without  bread or other extenders.

But extenders are the key to a real meatloaf. They absorb fat, and add texture. A meatloaf without bread or cracker crumbs or oatmeal, it’s not a meat loaf. It’s a big burger. A cannelon, if you will.

If you prefer using local beef, it’s time to rediscover the meat loaf. Local beef – which is generally grass fed – tends to be a bit on the lean and, yes, admit it,  tough side.  But grind it into burger, add some extenders and flavoring and – voila! – the perfect, local meat loaf mix is yours.

Like legions of Americans, my favorite meatloaf is mom’s. It’s tasty, yes, but it’s the texture that clinches it; when cold, it slices like paté, and makes a killer sandwich. My second favorite is “Grandma Crawford’s  Meatloaf for a Crowd,” submitted to the 1988  Vermont Farm Show Meat Loaf Contest by the late Marian Crawford of Arlington. That was the first and last meat loaf contest at the Ag Department. Maybe it’s time to bring it back.

Anyway, you’ll find both these recipes at VPR dot-net, and please – send us your own favorite meat loaf recipe.
Next week on The VPR Table – what to bring to a potluck.   

The leftovers make killer sandwiches, on French or Italian (or squishy white) bread, with ketchup.

2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1/2 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced green bell pepper
1 cup dry, unseasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 and 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
salt and pepper
3/4 cups milk
2 eggs

For the topping:
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9-by13-inch baking pan with foil, to help with cleanup.
In a skillet set over medium heat, sauté the onion pepper and parsley until soft, about 7 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and allow to cool briefly. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well with your hands, thoroughly, for several minutes – it is this mixing that produces the paté-like texture.  
Mound the mixture into the prepared pan and form into a free-standing loaf about 2 and 1/2 inches high. Bake for 30 minutes.
Mix together the ketchup, brown sugar and cider vinegar and, after the first 30 minutes of baking is done, spoon over the meat loaf. Bake for an additional 30 minutes.

Yield: about 6 servings


This recipe follows the more-or-less traditional mixing of beef with pork, generally in a 2 to 1 ratio. It breaks with established cooking authorities in that it is pressed into a pan, not baked as a free-standing loaf; the drawback is that it doesn’t brown all over. But the Authorities can say what they like; this recipe works.

1/2 cup honey
1 cup milk
1 cup oatmeal
3 medium onions, chopped fine
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon sweet basil
2 eggs
3 and 1/2 pounds ground chuck
1 and 1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon spicy mustard

For serving:

Cooked peas
Cooked carrots

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 12-inch round Bundt pan. In a medium bowl, mix together the honey and milk. Add oatmeal and onions, pepper and basil and eggs. Toss with a fork and set aside.
In a large bowl, mix meats together. Add  milk mixture. Mix very well, using your hands.
Pat into the prepared pan. Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Mix ketchup and mustard together and spread on top of meat loaf with pastry brush.
Remove from oven but keep the oven on. Let set in pan about 5 minutes.  Turn out onto large cookie sheet and brush with glaze. Return to the oven, shut off the heat, and let the meat loaf sit in the hot oven for 10 more minutes. Remove and place on a serving platter. Fill the center with cooked peas and arrange cooked carrots around the outside of the loaf.

Yield: Twelve to sixteen servings.

Recipe from "Blue Ribbon Meat Loaves," 1988. published by the Vermont Agriculture Department, 120 State Street,  Montpelier, VT 05602.

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