I’ve never much liked meatloaf. Ditto with meatballs. (After all, they’re simply tiny meatloaves disguised with a sauce.)
On the other hand, over the years I’ve had meatloaf and meatballs that were very good. But I knew those experiences were anomalies because I knew I don’t like meatloaf.
Somewhere over the years it began to dawn on me that a good meatloaf not only tastes good, it’s unique in the meat spectrum. A meatloaf is a cousin to a sausage, except it’s not aged. Grind meat and cook it and one has meatloaf (or meatballs, or hamburgers). Grind meat – especially pork – spice it, and leave it set for a couple of days and one has breakfast sausage. Smoke that same product and let it cure and one has dauerwurst (or some other hard sausage). It’s a continuum.
But it wasn’t until Tony Bourdain made a passing comment on one of his shows about the jacked-up prices of peasant food served in trendy restaurants that it occurred to me what was happening with meatloaf (and I suspect, sausages) over the years.
Meatloaf was a way for poor people to stretch the protein budget. Take a tough cut of meat, grind it, add some oatmeal, onions, allspice, and maybe a bit of carrot, or even cabbage or potatoes (and here we get into the realm of pasties and bierocks – a bit beyond the scope of this essay) and a poverty stricken cook can stretch a small, tough piece of meat as a meal for the whole family.
That’s the sort of meatloaf on which I grew up. At least I suspect it was hamburger, oatmeal, onion, salt and pepper, and a bit of ketchup on top. It was a good meal for a poor family, but it didn’t taste particularly good – little flavor, very dry (mom was a “well done” sort of cook) and a bit dreadful the second time around. But it stretched the food budget.
But when the “poor people’s food” that mom cooked is remembered fondly by her children (or at least her three children that didn’t have particularly well developed taste buds), it becomes “comfort food” in their own kitchens and dining room tables. When that same “poor people’s food” gets a makeover from a chef and is served in a restaurant, it becomes the oh, so chic “peasant food.”
Compare mom’s meatloaf to the peasant food (Alton Brown) or comfort food (Martha Stewart) of the modern culinary superstars and there’s hardly any comparison. Alton Brown’s all beef recipe has a dozen different ingredients (and I haven’t seen that episode of Good Eats, but it probably requires a trip to the local Williams Sonoma to purchase the required cooking equipment). Martha Stewart’s meatloaf includes those dozen ingredients, plus a couple more, and is a mix of beef, pork, and veal. I haven’t tried their recipes (I still don’t cook the stuff!), but they’re both highly rated recipes and look rather tasty.
This meditation on meatloaf actually began somewhere around Thanksgiving during a trip to Montana and culminated a few days ago at my niece’s dining room table. I stopped into a tiny sandwich shop in Bozeman for lunch and the daily special was the meatball sub. Possibly it was oxygen deprivation from the thin mountain air which led to such odd decision making, but I ordered the special. Turns out, it was a good choice. They were the best meatballs I have ever had. (Okay, I admit that I haven’t had a lot of meatballs in my life, but from among that paltry selection, these were the best I’ve ever had.) According to the college kid working behind the counter, it was the owner’s family’s recipe brought over from Italy.
As I thought about that heavenly sandwich on the way back to the car, I justified my feelings by telling myself that what I was just served was not really a meatball at all; it was more closely akin to a fine Italian sausage served warm on a toasted bun with marinara sauce. (Eureka! This was probably the beginning of my hamburger to dauerwurst continuum theorem mentioned above.)
Just the other night we had a very fine dinner that my niece served. (Thanks for a great meal, Kelly.) The main dish was two different flavors of meatloaf – Mexican and barbecue. They were very good. (No, really! I’m not just being polite.) But they had little in common with the poor people’s food I grew up with. Whether you classified them as comfort food or peasant food doesn’t matter, what does is that it was served primarily because it tasted good, and was good for you, instead of merely being a protein stretcher. Once again I was forced to rethink my assumptions about meatloaf.
So am I going to start making meat loaf on a regular basis? Probably not. But I do like other “poor people’s foods” that have been transformed into either comfort food or peasant fare, such as bierocks (which I have already raved about here) or shepherd’s pie. One of these days I’ll probably even order the stuff in a restaurant … when I’m feeling wealthy enough to be able to afford what Anthony Bourdain calls “peasant fare.”