Nobody knows exactly when meatloaf began being a staple of family dinners. But especially after World War II, moms used meatloaf as a way to stretch the food budget for families, since the main ingredient was hamburger. Using an inexpensive type of meat and throwing in leftovers and other less-than-fancy ingredients along with a few spices gave cooks a way to use up things that might otherwise go to waste while providing a relatively cheap meal that also made great leftovers. Chef Gavin McMichael, a partner in the Blacksmith restaurant in Bend, OR, has meatloaf on the menu right alongside the foie gras-stuffed quail. "I was a huge fan [of meatloaf], so of course I had to have meatloaf on my dinner menu," says McMichael. "We are creating foodies as fast as we can. Then they want to try things like foie gras."
Perhaps because of its appeal as a traditional family dinner, baby boomers are ordering meatloaf in restaurants. Many major restaurant chains as well as trendy independent eateries have found it to be a popular choice among all classes of patrons. Although meatloaf may not be the healthiest entrée to choose, it can certainly be made healthy with lean meats and a lot of vegetables in the mix. This comfort food that was so firmly ensconced in the American diet during the Depression has grown up and branched out into something of a historic American delicacy. "It has graduated from diner food into restaurant food," says Andrew Smith, editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. "It is real American food. It is something that is part of our early lives and part of our heritage."
Meatloaf was first created during the late 19th century, when meat grinders became popular. The 1884 Boston Cooking School Cookbook includes recipes for ground veal mixed with breadcrumbs and eggs, baked in small individual molds. The word "meatloaf" appeared regularly in the New York Times during the 1930s and 1940s, when it was critical for American families to stretch food dollars as much as possible. James E. McWilliams, assistant professor of history at Texas State's University and author of A Revolution in Eating, How the Quest for Food Shaped America," believes that meatloaf has its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal served by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since Colonial times. "It's a food that's quite consistent with an American attitude," McWilliams says. "It is so open to interpretation and flexible. Its origins are humble."
And interpretations of the basic meatloaf idea abound. At the Blacksmith restaurant, McMichael mixes top-grade ground beef and pork with eggs, cream, roasted tomato puree, poblano chilies, shallots, fresh garlic, onion, and Japanese breadcrumbs. He bakes individual loaves in cylinders, coats them with herbed tomato sauce, and serves them with mashed potatoes, green bean-carrot-and-onion sauté, and fresh creamed corn. Smith said he expects meatloaf to continue to gain in popularity as baby boomers continue to accept it as an American gourmet classic, saying that the basic reasons it became one will always remain-low cost and good taste. "It's very good wholesome, nutritious food, depending on what you put into it," he says. "And I like my way better than in the restaurant. Because it's my way and reminds me of what my mother made."