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.