From Budget Fare to Culinary Inspiration, the History of Meatloaf

Though the modern meatloaf we know is an American invention, the dish's ancestry spans the globe, dating back to Ancient Rome


In 1940, the Culinary Arts Institute published a recipe for Savory Meat Loaf that called for beef, vegetable soup, and cereal flakes. A pork loaf from the 1957 Complete American Cookbook was to be seasoned with turmeric, Angostura bitters, meat extract, and caramel. In 2008, the now defunct Gourmet swore a meatloaf of beef, pork, bacon, sautéed onions, garlic, carrots, celery, Worcestershire sauce, allspice, cider vinegar, and prunes, to be the best. It's no coincidence these seemingly distinct dishes are unified by the incongruous fact that they're all meatloaf. This peculiarity illustrates the essence of one of our best-loved meals. There is no one way to create meatloaf: It's precisely this capacity for re-invention that's allowed the iconic mélange to keep in step with the ebb and flow of American life over the last century. In its nuanced response to societal change, meatloaf has maintained a favored place on our dinner tables.

This isn't to say there aren't limitations to the dish's elasticity. The criteria are clear. Ground meat is primary -- the options for meatloaf span the gamut of proteins available at the butcher's counter, but an all-beef or beef and pork combo is commonly called for. The meat must be cut with filler or the loaf will be dense. Breadcrumbs, oatmeal, crackers, Japanese panko crumbs, rice, and minced vegetables are all fair game. Egg and/or dairy of some kind is essential to bind and moisten. As for seasoning, stick with salt and pepper if you're a purist; if not, raid your pantry. The loaf shape is half the point and it's provided by a tin or free-form shaping on a baking sheet. Top with bacon or serve naked, glazed, or sauced -- these are all acceptable forms of décor.

Though modern meatloaf is an American innovation, its ancestry spans the globe, and centuries. In his cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, Roman gastronome Apicius features chopped meat combined with spices, bread soaked in wine and pine nuts and formed into a patty. In Medieval Europe, odds and ends of meat were arduously diced fine, mixed with seasonings and fruits and nuts, and molded into pie-shaped disks called pastez. The lavish spreads of 17th-century France featured loaves of chopped meats and offal preserved within a hefty layer of gelatin. The Ur-American meatloaf was born in the 18th century courtesy of Pennsylvanian Dutch settlers who were partial to an austere concoction called scrapple. To further stretch the yield of a slaughtered pig -- after the steaks, loins, chops, hams, bacon, and sausages were cut and produced -- meat was scraped from bones and combined with the lungs, liver, and heart in a cauldron of broth. Cornmeal and seasonings were added and the resulting mush was pressed into loaves, allowed to set, then sliced and pan-fried.

Had it not been for the advances of the Industrial Revolution, meatloaf as we know it might never have been. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, that meatloaf was first mentioned in print in the U.S. in 1899. It was no accident this this was immediately after the invention of the mechanical meat grinder by German inventor Karl Drais. From then on, recipes started appearing in cookbooks. Fannie Farmer's 1918 edition of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook included two variations of a ground veal-based loaf, as well as a recipe for Cannelon -- a dish that recalls almost every aspect of a beef meatloaf, except the name. For the gastronome, the grinder offered a new degree of fineness and consistency of texture. Cooks previously had to chop meat in large wooden bowls using a curved blade, but now they were buying pre-ground meat directly from butchers and working it through grinders. A 1906 grinder from the Enterprise Manufacturing Co. of Philadelphia could process 1 ½ pounds of meat per minute, all for $1.75. This, and the fact that beef was increasingly accessible due to advances in refrigeration and a thriving meat packing industry in Chicago, propelled meatloaf onto every housewife's radar.

For the millions burdened by the hardships of the Depression, it was lucky meatloaf arrived when it did. The notion of meatloaf as comfort food stems from its frequent appearance in this period. Warm and filling, it provided cheap, nourishing sustenance. Tough cuts of beef like chuck or rump were tenderized by way of a good grinding. Small amounts of beef or veal were stretched by adding fillers. Manufacturers commercialized World War I developments in food technology and the '30s saw a significant shift towards processed and canned products. In addition to bread and crackers, quick-cooking oats, tapioca, breakfast cereal, and powdered sauce mixes could pad out a meatloaf, and condiments such as mustard, bouillon, canned soup, and Heinz ketchup added flavor and moistness at small cost. Manufacturers themselves, seeing an opportunity for increased sales, positioned meatloaf recipes on the backs of products such as Quaker Oats, Campbell's Soup, and Post Toasties.

With the increased strictures of wartime rationing in the '40s, meatloaf consolidated its high-ranking position in the housewife's culinary artillery. Here, meatloaf took on new symbolic significance. By maintaining the health and strength of a country at war, it played its role on the front lines. Penny Prudence's "Vitality Loaf" was jammed with beef, pork, pork liver, oatmeal, wheat germ, onion-evaporated milk, egg, and chili sauce. The most economical options of this era, however, even deviated from the aforementioned ingredients -- they didn't actually feature meat at all. Capitalizing on the familiar shape and texture of the dish to appeal to the American palate, cookbooks with titles such as Cooking on a Ration (1943) were filled with recipes that used beans, nuts, rice, and soy flour in place of meat.

But meatloaf was capable of more than just budget fare, and the post-war era of the 1950s and '60s liberated it. Taste and creativity now served as primary ingredients. For a large contingent of women who spent the war in the work force, the '50s were a time of re-discovering the kitchen. Advertisers, magazines, and newspapers, charged with the task of encouraging women to embrace their new role, glorified the image of the housewife, celebrated kitchen skills, and stressed the importance of being creative as a means to fulfillment. Naturally, meatloaf fit seamlessly into this milieu. It could be personalized and adapted any number of ways, all the while requiring only basic skills. The 1955 edition of the Good Housekeeping cookbook included Sherry-Barbecued Meatloaves, Mushroom-Stuffed Meatloaves, and a Spicy Peach Loaf. The frosted meatloaf, where mashed potato is slathered on a baked loaf, then broiled for a golden crust, debuted in the '50s. To enliven a simpler offering, there was an inexhaustible trend for garnishing, glazing, saucing, and decorating. The traditional loaf was even temporarily retired in favor of the fashionable ring shape. A proponent of this trend, Betty Crocker, the fictional domestic doyenne of General Mills, advised piling vegetables in the center.

No doubt innovators of the '50s and '60s would reel at the next turn in meatloaf's evolution. The dish maintained its popularity, particularly in blue-collar homes, but dropped the outlandish accoutrements. Recognizing this, supermarkets packaged an inexpensive ground meatloaf mix of 1/3 pork, 1/3 veal, and 1/3 beef. And so the sacred triumvirate that many advocates hold as gospel was born. The dish gained a reputation as tasty, honest fare, for honest, hard-working folk. Then the '90s happened. Restaurant chefs looking for the next wave of culinary inspiration embraced the food of the home and hearth. They called it comfort food and slapped a $20 price tag on a $2 slice of ground meat and filler.

A tireless chameleon, meatloaf is up to its old tricks again. With more television shows that document exotic fare, eclectic cookbooks that chronicle dishes from around the world, and wider access to global ingredients in mainstream grocery stores, Americans are increasingly hungry for ethnic flavors. According to a study by market research group Mintel, sales of ethnic foods climbed steadily in the early '00s to reach a record high of $2.2 billion in 2009, and are expected to advance a further 20 percent within the next three years. At Eatery, in Manhattan, a ricotta meatloaf with pecorino sauce and a grape tomato and balsamic reduction is a crowd-pleaser. San Francisco's Sentinel serves a turkey meatloaf, moisturized with lemon juice, chile paste, tahini and cream. Buckhead Diner in Atlanta adds green chile and chorizo to a veal and wild mushroom loaf. Gussied up once more, this time meatloaf has traded retro cool for ethnic chic.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.