So today, I got up early and after making a very pleasant omelette for breakfast, I thought about meatloaf. Where does it come from? Who created it? Why does it seem to be cross-cultural, at least in the meat eating cultures?
My friend Stephen said something to me recently that stuck with me. In having a conversation with his mom, Antonia, they came to the realisation that most American dishes are just versions of famous ethnic or gourmet dishes made with prepackaged ingredients and more time saving shortcuts taken in the preparation. This would marginally explain Chef Boyardee or the use of transfats, but how does it impact meatloaf? This made me turn to my Larousse Gastronomique. I have two of these useful books, one from 1961 and one from 2001. For those of you that don't know Larousse Gastronomique is basically an encyclopedia of food and food preparation. It gives the origins, common types, and uses for any number of ingredients, dishes and utensils. It does all this from a French cuisine bias, but it still is incredibly useful, especially for a trivia nut like myself.
Anyway, Larousse doesn't have a listing for meatloaf and there is barely a mention of it under the entire meat section. Being of French origin, I didn't think this was too surprising. I mean meatloaf isn't French in spite of the huge section on pates and forcemeats. So I went to the English for help. The Oxford Companion to Food (1999) is basically an English knock off of Gastronomique. This is a common practice among dictionary/encyclopedia publishers, but Oxford does, at least, have a reference to meatloaf. According to Oxford meatloaf is:
a dish whose visibility is considerably higher in real life, especially in N. 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 de pays et des aromatiques), but it does not. In the USA the term was only recorded in print from 1899, in Britain not until 1939 (although liver loaf and ham loaf occurred earlier). 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.Strange that Oxford fails to mention that a meatloaf is actually made from meat, but I guess they are not perfect. I should mention that, the editors of this book crack me up. There is a underlying humour in almost everything they write. You can almost picture the smarmy, mousey looking researcher sitting at their desk giggling as they write stuff like "this situation might be changed..." or "a worthy dish..."and especially, "the editors... assert that meat loaf is usually eaten cold...". You can almost hear the resounding 'Jolly Goods' and 'Brilliants' coming from the editorial meetings, but I digress.
The editors of the OED assert that meat loaf is usually eaten cold in slices.
It is funny that it seems to be a point of honour, taken up by the contributor, that meatloaf is too low brow for the French, but it coould be rectified by a high-falutin' name change and also that the 'loaf could never be part of haute cuisine.
And I don't know if it is just me, but it is like this reference simply says that meatloaf is a peasant dish, served earliest in the USA (ie the peasants) with adoption in the UK at a later date where it is raised from its humble roots (ie bourgeois cookery), but, of course, it could never possibly be improved, especially not by those haughty French bastards.
I guess meatloaf, like other dishes, is, in fact, best served cold.