Growing up in Texas, chef Gavin McMichael used to ask his mom to make meatloaf for his birthday each year. Now that he has his own restaurant, meatloaf is on the menu, along with quail stuffed with foie gras.
“I was a huge fan, so of course I had to have meatloaf on my dinner menu,” said McMichael, a partner in the Blacksmith restaurant in one of the fastest-growing sections of Oregon. “We are creating foodies as fast as we can. Then they want to try things like foie gras.”
Mom made meatloaf to stretch the food budget. Dad ate it because it tasted good, especially with lots of ketchup. Now Baby Boomers are ordering it in restaurants. Meatloaf may not be tops on the healthy food list, though it can certainly be made that way with lean meats and lots of veggies. But this comfort food that became an American staple during the Depression is hanging on, growing up and branching out.
“It has graduated from diner food into restaurant food,” while remaining a home-cooking staple, said Andrew Smith, editor in chief of the “Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” from his New York home in Brooklyn. “It is real American food. It is something that is part of our early lives and part of our heritage.”
Meatloaf comes out of the late 19th century, when meat grinders became popular, said Lynne Olver, editor of the Web site Foodtimeline.org. The 1884 “Boston Cooking School Cookbook” has recipes for ground veal mixed with breadcrumbs and eggs, baked in small individual molds.
“A big old loaf of meat would violate the American Victorian sense of decorum,” she said.
The word meatloaf appears regularly in the New York Times in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Depression and World War II made stretching food dollars imperative. But it was the 1950s when America “embraced” meatloaf.
“I have cookbooks from the ’50s with all sorts of filled meatloaf, gourmet meatloafs, meatloaf for the grill,” Olver said.
James E. McWilliams, assistant professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos and author of “A Revolution in Eating, How the Quest for Food Shaped America,” sees meatloaf’s roots in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal made by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since Colonial times.
“It’s a food that’s quite consistent with an American attitude,” McWilliams said. “It is so open to interpretation and flexible. Its origins are humble.”
President Ronald Reagan was a famous fan, and writer Jean Shepherd included family battles over meatloaf in the movie “A Christmas Story.” Little brother Randy declares he hates meatloaf, and The Old Man threatens to use a screwdriver and plumber’s helper to get some down him.
Chicago piano salesman and sometime food writer Lee Maloney grew up loving his mom’s meatloaf, and kept looking for something that would measure up when he traveled the country as music director for various circuses and ice shows.
Most of the stuff he found in diners and truck stops was awful, but circus friends made marvelous variations. A Czech trapeze act made it with hard-boiled eggs in the middle. Others baked whole tomatoes, gherkins, sausage, stuffing and foie gras baked inside. But the closer to Mom’s the better.
“My parents have long been gone, but it brings back very fond memories of coming home after school, and eating meatloaf, mashed potatoes and creamed corn,” said Maloney.
About 10 years ago, cookbook author David Rosengarten started seeing meatloaf tarted up with wine sauces in New American Cuisine restaurants, but now finds it in neighborhood bistros, where it is treated with respect in the classic style, with ketchup.
Competing with New York steak and seared scallops, meatloaf is one of the top entrees at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, on Oregon’s coast, where golfers fly in from around the world to walk as many as 36 holes in a day.
All that walking makes people hungry, and if they are staying over a few days, they also want something familiar, said executive chef Don McCradic.
At the Blacksmith restaurant, McMichael mixes ground beef and pork with eggs, cream, roasted tomato puree, poblano chilies, shallots, garlic, onion and Japanese breadcrumbs. He bakes individual loaves in cylinders, and serves them with a tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean-carrot-and-onion saute, and creamed corn.
Smith said he expects meatloaf to keep going strong. His kids like it, and the reasons it became popular — low cost and good taste — remain.
“It’s very good wholesome, nutritious food, depending what you put into it,” he said. “And I like my way better than in the restaurant. Because it’s my way and reminds me of what my mother made.”