MEATLOAF OR PATE? CHACUN A SON LOAF!
Meatloaf is a simple dish made from ground meat, bound with egg and bread crumbs, seasoned with with chopped vegetables and herbs, formed into a loaf shape and baked. It is, according to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, “…a dish whose visibility is considerably higher in real life, especially in North America and Britain, than in cookery books. This situation might be changed if it had a French name (pate chaud de viande hachee, prealablement marinee dans du vin et des aromatiques), but it does not. In the United States the term was only recorded in print from 1899, in Britain not until 1939. The use of loaf is particularly appropriate as most recipes include bread, usually in the form of soft breadcrumbs. Also, it is shaped like a loaf and may indeed be baked in a loaf tin or something similar. A worthy dish, which can embody the sort of rusticity which the word ‘peasant’ evokes, but can also exhibit the kind of refinement associated with bourgeois cookery. Its range, however, does not extend into the realm of haute cuisine.”
In fact, meatloaf has European origins; it is a North American version of European forcemeats, rissoles, polpettone or pate de campagne (country pate). Meatloaf is mentioned in the 1st century Roman cookbook by Apicus, and similar dishes have long histories in Belgian and German cuisine. As for the French, Raymond Sokolov, in The Cook’s Canon, notes that “Larousse Gastronomique (1938), in its lengthy and earnest two pages on hachis, a category that includes everything chopped from hamburger to lobster hash (the operative cognate), gives many fine examples of chopped meat concoctions served in various kinds of molded forms, primarily the truncated cone called timbale, from the drum it resembles, but not neglecting various earthenware containers. They have a way to go over there in the meat loaf department, but you can’t fault them for trying.”
American meatloaf may have its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal served by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since colonial times. But meatloaf in the modern sense began appearing in American cookbooks at the end of the 19th century. It became ubiquitous during the Great Depression, when meatloaf made from cheap cuts of meat, leftover vegetables and fillers like cereal grains provided a way to stretch family food budgets. Americans have developed a love/hate relationship with this national comfort food. It is difficult to make meatloaf for an American guest because, on the one hand, your preparation may be compared to memories of mother’s cherished recipe. On the other hand, it may evoke visions of mother’s worst, a dry, gray, brick-like slab of overcooked “mystery meat” swathed in a blanket of ketchup.
Many Americans make meatloaf entirely from ground beef, presumably because the price is right. But using ground beef that is low in fat results in a tough, dry meatloaf, and using a fattier cut makes your meatloaf greasy. Ground chuck is the cut of choice. Better yet, combine at least two types of meat (many consider equal parts beef chuck, pork and veal to be optimal). Overmixing meatloaf also will make it tough. Assemble the ingredients in a large bowl and mix it with your (scrupulously clean) hands until just combined. And, meatloaf will be tough if you cook it too long. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that beef, lamb, pork and veal mixtures be cooked to 160* on a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf. Chicken and turkey mixtures should be cooked to 165*.
Let your meatloaf rest on a rack for ten minutes or so after you take it out of the oven so that it can reabsorb its juices. It you serve immediately, it will be drier and more likely to crumble. Many meatloaf lovers prefer an even longer wait; overnight in the refrigerator gives the flavors a chance to meld and improves the texture of the loaf.
TO THE TUNE OF LA VIE EN ROSE:
When you’re dining out in France,
don’t leave your meal to chance,
order viande melange.
When the garcon asks you say,
“Oh please, sir, regardez,
I want viande melange.”
“No boeuf Bourguignon from August Escoffier
I want my beef hachee,
and slathered with ketchup.”
“Puree de pommes de terre for me
and some sauce aussi
for my viande mélange.”
“Give me petits pois, and dear,
je voudrais une biere
with my viande mélange.”
“It’s not haut cuisine, it’s bourgeois, but you know
I like my cuisine low
and served with Tabasco.”
“Hot fudge on my crème glace,
a fin approprie,
after viande mélange.”
According to the New York Times (February 3, 1991) a version of this ditty is performed at periodic black tie meatloaf dinners in Texas.