The Real History of Meatloaf – The Food, Not The Singer


Let’s explore the long and amazing history of meatloaf. We are going to look at who invented meatloaf, where it came from and the different varieties of meatloaf…yes, there are many types of meatloaf!

It seems fair to say that meatloaf does not enjoy the very best reputation among “foodies.” You tend to think it’s something stressed parents prepare. When their kids ask what’s for dinner and are told, the kids respond, “Aww, meatloaf! Why?” They then proceed to drown it in ketchup and drearily pick at it with their forks for a while before asking to be excused so they can go do their homework (yeah right! probably texting their friends, playing the Xbox, or scrolling social media).

Meatloaf is one of those underappreciated, all-American type dishes that we often don’t pay much attention to. There are a few reasons for this. The simplest is that people often botch meatloaf up, mainly by trying too hard to make it something other than a big loaf of meat with starchy fillers and flavoring ingredients. To me, the most discouraging reason could be our deep-seated societal aversion to things that are good.

The most obstructive reasoning is meat loaf’s traditional notoriety: everybody’s parents made it; everybody was tired of it; everybody related it to their overtaxed parents and boring food; everybody ditched it as soon as he or she could.

However then, everybody moved into adulthood and got over their “juvenile” need to appear hip and thought, “Wow, meatloaf is amazing,” and then, “Wow, I don’t know how to make meatloaf,” and then, “Wow, why didn’t I watch my mom make meatloaf, so I could make it for myself?”

And you know what happens…. you grill an uninteresting chicken breast with steamed, mundane spinach instead.

And readers, that is a Shakespearean tragedy. Because when you remove yourself from the idea that meatloaf is a demoralizing, indistinguishable protein concoction for downcast people, here’s what you see: a big, glossy mountain of rich, red meat, roasted crusty on the outside, moist and succulent on the inside, packed with all kinds of luscious additions, and topped with whatever you like. An epicurean wanton extravagance, right? Time to grow up, assert yourself, stand on your own two feet, and admit you love meatloaf.

Do you like meatballs? Hamburgers? Many of us like things that are bigger than other things and meatloaf is virtually like those first two things only a little bit different and a “lot” larger, especially when you make one that is devilishly colossal. So let’s reconsider meatloaf. However, before I give you my recipe for a hedonistic meal, let’s show a little respect for a dish that has suffered so much over the years. The reality is that meatloaf has a rich and proud history. This is its story.

Meatloaf Has a Long and Ancient History

Patties or “loaves” of minced meat, mixed with a variety of ingredients, are part of many culinary histories. Germans hid boiled eggs inside a meatloaf, the Romans enjoyed theirs made with wine-soaked bread, spices, and pine nuts. Medieval Europe served it with mixed fruits, nuts, and seasonings. Sometimes it was served hot, or wrapped in ham, or served cold with sauces, or was found jiggling in layers of gelatin.

Pennsylvania Dutch Settlers

As immigrants made their way to America, they brought their recipes with them. The Pennsylvania Dutch settlers of the 18th century made “scrapple” as a way to use every bit of a slaughtered pig. They simmered the meat with cornmeal and shaped it into a loaf after which they fried and sliced it.

Modern Meatloaf Followed the Invention of the Meat Grinder

Before the meat grinder the meat needed to be laboriously minced by hand. But the invention of the meat grinder by Karl Drais changed all that, making the process much quicker. It may be rare to own one now, but a meat grinder used to be a normal kitchen tool, ensuring that everyone could grind his or her own meat. And what better use for ground beef than meatloaf. Meatloaf became much more popular after this important invention.

Meatloaf was Comforting During the Great Depression

The Great Depression was extremely hard on most Americans, with millions out of work, the stock market crash, and the Dust Bowl. With meatloaf’s ability to stretch cheap meat into even more meals by the addition of cheap oats, breadcrumbs, and other starches, it’s no wonder this filling dish gained even more appreciation in the hearts of Americans during this time.

Meatloaf Was Popular During World War II

Meatloaf again came to the rescue in the 1940s when war rationing limited the amount of meat that could be purchased for family meals. Numerous meatloaf recipes appeared on the labels of canned soup, ketchup, and cereal boxes. By the time the 1950s rolled around, the dish was so iconic that hamburger themed cookbooks were brimming with strange recipes, and any diner worth its salt had better make sure they had meatloaf on the menu.

Meatloaf Is Incredibly Adaptable

What’s the reason meatloaf has stayed with us through so many years? It’s a maestro of transformation. It’s lived through ancient times, the Industrial Revolution, world wars, depressions, nasty frozen versions, and out of touch gourmet versions, all because it is so adaptable.

So I humbly offer you a meatloaf that will taste so good yet is so simple and straightforward that all your meatloaf phobias will disappear forever.

The internet is filled with hundreds of amazing meatloaf recipes. Below you will find some tips and tricks to take any meatloaf recipe and take it to the next level.

Here is one of our favorite basic ingredients list from Natasha’s Kitchen:

Meatloaf Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs ground beef 85% or 90% lean
  • 1 med onion finely chopped
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 garlic cloves minced
  • 3 Tbsp ketchup
  • 3 Tbsp fresh parsley finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 ½ tsp salt or to taste
  • 1 ½ tsp Italian seasoning
  • ¼ tsp ground black pepper

To begin, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Now drop four or five (yes four or five) pounds of meat into the largest bowl you have. Listen, it’s meatloaf! What type of meat? It’s your meatloaf and your taste.

It’s usually best to use a mix of beef, pork, and veal – veal for juiciness and gelatin (you want a soft, moist texture), pork because how can we live without it, and beef because what is meatloaf that doesn’t have beef. However, some people prefer just one or two of the types of meat.

How you construct it and in what proportions is up to you and if you are perplexed just go to your local grocer (or more preferably to a butcher) and get 4 to 5 pounds of prepackaged “meatloaf mix” or “meatloaf blend.” Ok, I’m sorry if you want to get four pounds of ground chuck. Or two of chuck and two of ground turkey. Maybe that will appease your inner wellness.

Your meatloaf will definitely be drier and crumblier this way (and not nearly as toothsome) but it might taste relatively OK. But really, put in some veal – yes, it’s evil, but you only live once.

Add other things to the bowl. Now you have a bowl full of ground meat. So here is the next step (you will thank me). You want one cup of THINGS THAT ARE NOT MEAT for each pound of meat in your meatloaf. You heard me right. If you have four pounds of meat, then you need four cups of things THAT ARE NOT MEAT.

So what to add? One big onion (Spanish or sweet or white) diced small – that’ll be about a cup of THINGS THAT ARE NOT MEAT. A few cloves of garlic – this is a minor addition to our THINGS THAT ARE NOT MEAT, so we won’t count it so as not to complicate the math. Now a half cup or so of minced carrot. Whisk three eggs with a fork in a small bowl and then pour them into your bowl of meat.

Next two glugs of milk (like two slugs if you were drinking from the bottle). And then two and a half cups or so of bread crumbs. If you want to think healthy add some chopped bell pepper or celery or (if you want to be over-the-top healthy) some kale. But remember, meatloaf isn’t always about what’s the healthiest.

Season your unconstructed loaf. Be generous with salt, black pepper and paprika.

Then lesser amounts of crushed red pepper or cayenne and some thyme and parsley. Don’t go nuts with the latter, stay Zen.

Knead that big mass with your bare hands until the ingredients are just barely mixed together. This is a big one. An even distribution of THINGS THAT ARE NOT MEAT will be the complete demise of your meatloaf. You will end up with a thick, cardboardy, depressing meal and, unless you are British (stiff upper lip), you might cry. What you want is for the ingredients to be mixed together just well enough to form a sound mass in the bowl: no straying mass in the bowl, no straying onions or bread crumbs, and surely no puddle of eggs at the bottom of the bowl.

What’s next? This is where so many fail. Do not, I repeat, do not make the grave error of squeezing this hunk into a deep, narrow, form fitting loaf pan, where it will wallow in its juices and come out mushy and shrunken.

Instead, hand mold into a vague expansive shape. Foil line a hotel pan, roasting pan, or rectangular pan that is big enough not to squeeze the loaf on any side. (Do not use a shallow cookie sheet: lots of meat, lots of liquid, messy oven. Trust me from experience.) Be gentle with your loaf. Don’t roll it around or squeeze it.

If you used a big enough bowl just upturn it onto the baking pan and admire your art.

Cook in your preheated oven for about 90 minutes. If you have a thermometer you can call your meatloaf “done” whenever the middle gets to 160 degrees. But if you’ve read this far, here is a secret: wait 90 minutes, stick it with a fork, and say, “Yeah, it’s done.”

Squirt regular ketchup all over the top of your meatloaf. When you pull it out of the oven you will have a nicely browned crust and wonderful aroma. Time to eat? No! Add the ketchup and cook for another 15 minutes. In 15 minutes the ketchup will have darkened beautifully and your meatloaf will be done.

Serve your meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a libation. And, if you must, a bright, green salad. Enjoy. Put what’s left in the fridge (in the biggest airtight container you have). Tomorrow, cut a thick slice from this wonderful creation and place it between two pieces of bread (whatever you have) and wash it down with a beer or wine and then smile. What were you thinking when you were a teenager? And, of course, you can listen to “Bat Out of Hell,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” or “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” while eating your meatloaf.