When we think of comfort foods, the one “all-American” dish that comes to mind is meatloaf. Every blue plate special in any small-town diner features meatloaf, gravy and mashed potatoes (and more times than not, canned green beans). Ralphie’s mom in A Christmas Story seemed to produce meatloaf on a nightly basis for dinner, along with that red cabbage that Ralphie “just loved”. Sauced with some brown gravy, it extends the food budget, sticks to the ribs, and evokes Americana as surely as apple pie. But just as apple pie is not truly an American invention, neither is meatloaf. Like so many other “national dishes”, meatloaf is a conglomerate of the cultures and cuisines that make up the good ol’ U S of A.
Loaves of meat, not terribly different from what we know as our all-American meatloaf, are a part of many different cuisines. Middle Eastern dishes include kibbie and kafta, both a type of meatloaf. The French have been serving terrines and pâtes since well before Columbus set foot in the New World. This French meatloaf was merely a means of taking some less desirable cuts and through grinding and a combination of spices, creating a loaf of meat which, when sliced, served with cornichones, crusty bread, and grainy mustard, became a gourmet delight. So even though we think of meatloaf as an American dish (and perhaps it is, in its present configuration), the actual genesis, like so many other American dishes, is certainly not American.
I must admit that while meatloaf is now something that frequently finds its way to my family’s table, especially during the cold dark months of the winter, this was not always the case. In fact, it was one of those dishes to which I had a great aversion. But as in so many other things, the manner in which the recipe, preparation and cooking are handled can be the difference between aversion and mouth-watering expectation.
Many decades ago, when my parents found it necessary to escape three somewhat rowdy male children for some adult alone time, we would find ourselves under the care of a kindly widow who, while not being our aunt, nevertheless was christened Aunt Winnie. During those times when my parents had escaped to azure seas and sandy beaches in Bermuda or adventures in snow skiing in the Canadian Laurenteans, we would come under the watchful eye and care of Aunt Winnie. She assured that we were up for school, that food was on the table for dinner, that curfews were enforced, and that the house was still standing upon my parents’ return. As she pointed out to us often, "You have to get up pretty early to fool Aunt Winnie".
Unfortunately, Aunt Winnie was not an accomplished cook, which brings us to that aversion to meatloaf. Typically, Aunt Winnie’s meatloaf was topped with several strips of bacon and a dollop or two of ketchup. When the blended meat, eggs and breadcrumbs were placed in a glass pan and baked at 375° for an hour or so, the net result was much like watching a cork bob on the surface of a pond. Only in this case, the cork was the dried-out loaf of meat and the pond waters were the tallow in which it floated; bobbing up and down in a sea of liquefied animal fat. It was not appetizing. In addition to the inevitable hamburger stroganoff, as my parents were enjoying the theatre in New York and dining at a spectacular restaurant, we could rest assured that we would be treated to Aunt Winnie’s meatloaf (usually with a side of lumpy mashed potatoes). It really was not a dish that I looked forward to consuming, and so more times than not, I would secretly pass it to our Great Pyrenees whose culinary development was clearly lacking. This gave rise to one of the great ironies of Aunt Winnie’s culinary efforts that stays with me even to this day. Having been caught passing my meatloaf to the dog, I was instructed, “Don’t feed that to the dog. It’s much too greasy. Now eat your meatloaf”. Somehow I was never able to rationalize in my own mind how a dish that was too greasy for the dog was fit for human consumption, but nevertheless that was the expectation.
It took me many years to get over the vision of that desiccated meat bobbing in a sea of tallow and to realize that, in fact, when properly prepared, that non-all American dish can be a comfort food staple. There are many variations but ideally I like a mixture of several ground lean meats, moistened with egg, spiced with rosemary and onion, and bound with either bread crumbs or oatmeal. The mixture can be formed into a loaf and baked in a loaf pan, or done free-form on a shallow baking dish. In either case, I’ve never found the results floating in a sea of tallow, nor have I ever had concerns that this meatloaf was too greasy for my Newf. Not that this issue arises, because more often than not, there are no leftovers. This recipe is also a wonderful time saver. Multiple loafs can be made in advance and frozen, ready for the oven with no prep time so that a good comfort food meal can be made even when there are time constraints or no desire to cook. And, with a tip of my hat to Aunt Winnie, here’s the doggone good meatloaf recipe that finally removed that old vision of food I was expected to eat, although it was (admittedly) not fit for a dog.
Doggone Good Meat loaf
1 lb. lean ground beef (preferrably coarse ground round)
1/4 lb lean ground pork
1/4 lb. lean ground veal
1/3 cup finely minced onions
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. rosemary, rubbed
1 tsp. basil
2/3 cup rolled oats
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
Place all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix and knead until well-combined and even in consistency. Shape free form (à la football) on a shallow baking dish (covered) or place in greased bread loaf pan. Cook 50 minutes in a pre-heated 350° oven. Allow to rest 5 minutes before slicing. Serve with mushroom or onion gravy, whipped potatoes and sauteed green beans. A glass of Merlot takes it from everyday to special.