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Edible Obsessions

Ode to the Loaf

By Steve Billings

Meatloaf is comfort. Meatloaf is home. Meatloaf is Mom. Meatloaf is something you don't order from the roadside diner. Or is it?

I always loved my mom's meatloaf growing up. She topped hers with strips of bacon and served it with mashed potatoes and green beans. This was one of the few meals we had where there was ketchup on the table. We made sandwiches from the leftovers the following day.

Meatloaf. It just keeps on giving.

Yet there is something about the word itself that makes you wonder if it's a wise choice dining out. It's not attractive. It doesn't sound pretty when you say it. It is composed of two monosyllabic words that independently are a hard sell and describe groups of things rather than particulars. When you compound these two vague things into one, the result is only slightly clearer. There is lots of room for the imagination to run wild.

The only thing you know for sure is that there is loaf-shaped meat in front of you. How did it get this way? What kind of meat is in it? What was previously wrong with it that you had to form it up into something else before you served it to me?

But humans have been eating ground seasoned meats for centuries and for many different reasons. Grinding meat makes tough meat more tender, while adding other ingredients (like breads, vegetables, other grains) allows you to feed more mouths and use all edible parts.

But it seems that our American meatloaf is more of a product of industrial evolution and commercialism than one based on necessity or scarcity. The Industrial Revolution introduced commercially available ground meat for the first time, while meat grinders sold to the general public were promoted by including recipe books.

Jean Anderson, author of the forthcoming American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century (Gramercy; $14.99), says that meatloaf recipes can be found in American cookbooks from the 1880s onward and were made primarily from veal and "altogether different from the meat loaves so familiar today." Anderson also reveals that the precursor to our meatloaf of today was something called "cannelon," a kind of meat roll made from lean chopped steak.

"Though simple loaves of chopped meat may have been made during America's infancy and adolescence, only in the twentieth century did meat loaves truly arrive," she writes. "And, yes, many of them did come out of big food company test kitchens. Like it or not."

I have to admit, I kind of like it.

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From the January 5-11, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.


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