Before today I’d never made or eaten meatloaf before. Growing up, my whole experience of it came from watching American films from the 90’s where it was always presented as a bit of a disappointment: dry, bland and uninspired, occasionally with ketchup. None of my friends ate it either so it became something I thought of as semi-fictional, in a boring kind of way. I think there was only one film where meatloaf was made to seem dangerous and exciting, but it was part of a messy, short lived scene that ended with a pickaxe and bits of Meat Loaf all over the walls and floor. Other than creating some mildly conflicting emotions in 12 year old me (who, let’s face it, knew she shouldn’t be watching a DVD that featured so much leather and red lipstick on the front cover), this particular scene didn’t really change my opinion of the dish overall.
I’m unsure why I thought of meatloaf as this slightly ugly, dull meal in comparison to the fancy sounding terrine when they are such similar dishes. It’s probably because the word “terrine” evokes French elegance, upmarket restaurants and crisp white napkins whereas the word “meatloaf” sounds like something we’d all be fighting over in the dystopian wasteland of a nuclear winter as part of a futile effort to avoid resorting to cannibalism. Or maybe I’ve just thought about it too much.
“It’s really boring” I told my husband. “At least, I think it is. You probably won’t like it.” I showed him the ugly photo of lumpy meatloaf in Marguerite Pattern’s 1967 edition of Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour.
“Well why are you making it then?”
I showed him the photo of Wurstel Sausage in Aspic which had been the alternative for my foray into the food of the 60’s and 70’s. He agreed I’d made the right decision.
In theory meatloaf has been around for centuries because dishes of compressed minced meat have existed since ancient times. In Apicius there’s a recipe for Brain Sausage involving pulverised minced brain which is shaped and cooked in a pan and sliced into portions to be eaten cold. I would do anything for my love of historical cooking, but I won’t do that. I needed a modern, non-brain version to make instead.
Our modern idea of meatloaf first appeared in American print in 1899 – coincidentally just after the invention of the meat grinder. From then on it became a firm American staple, appearing in cookbooks and on dining tables for decades after. It wasn’t until 1939 that meatloaf made it to British print, however, by which time it had cemented its place as a versatile but fairly inelegant meal. The recipe I used for today’s meatloaf, taken from Quick and Easy Cookbook in Colour, appeared under the title “Made-up meat dishes” which did little to change my perception of meatloaf as something that wasn’t quite real, but I was prepared to change my mind. Besides, I was using my gran’s old cookbook which bore tell tale splatter marks from when meatloaf had been all the rage in the 70’s.
First I melted 1 oz. of margarine in a pan, added two chopped onions and cooked them until they were soft but not brown. I then added 3 oz. of mushrooms, flour and milk to form a white sauce and cooked until thickened. So far, so easy. I was actually quite pleased to see that the first two ingredients were vegetables and not meat; it somehow made the unappetising image in the book a little less daunting.
Once the onion/mushroom/white sauce mixture cooled slightly I added a combination of minced beef and sausage meat, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, two eggs, 3 oz. bread crumbs, a teaspoon of mixed herbs and 1 oz. of parmesan cheese (“Oh, you’re making a fancy meatloaf then”, my mum said when she found out the ingredients.) I then added 3 tablespoons of tomato puree which gave everything a disconcerting pinky/orange hue and reminded me of Rocky Horror again, before squidging it all into a loaf tin and baking for just over an hour.
The thing I hadn’t appreciated about meatloaf is that it’s often meant to be served cold. Patten’s recipe called for the meatloaf to be chilled in the fridge for a couple of hours once cooked before being sliced and served with a salad. I had intended to serve this for dinner, and by the time it was done it was already 7pm. I didn’t think my family would appreciate waiting another two or three hours for a meal that I’d done nothing but complain about since starting. It’s fair to say expectations weren’t high and tacking on an additional countdown to inevitable disappointment wasn’t something I fancied doing to my family – so I served it hot.
Sliced warm, it didn’t quite keep its intended loaf shape – entirely my fault, but not very helpful in boosting the overall attractiveness of the meal. That said, it didn’t look as awful as I’d imagined a whole tin of squashed meat would. There was a pretty satisfying brown and crunchy top to the meatloaf which, once broken, revealed a surprisingly tender and moist interior. I was delighted to find that the crumbly dryness I’d been expecting was no where to be seen – it was like eating a lasagne without pasta and was quite delicious.
The mushrooms and white sauce lent the whole thing a pleasantly silky texture as well as preventing dryness. The tomato paste gave a surprisingly strong “vegetable” taste that threatened to distract from the beef and sausage meat, a combination that worked quite well, although I would have preferred more sausage meat than Patten used in her recipe.
I wanted to see what it tasted like cold, though, so a couple of hours later I cut a slice from the refrigerated leftovers. The flavours had intensified, with the beef becoming more prominent in particular and the tomato taking a welcomed backseat. The texture had become a little chunkier and less smooth too – it was somehow more robust. Overall I think I preferred it cold, as Patten had intended.
Despite my limited pop culture references leading me to believe meatloaf was a bland meal, I didn’t find it bland at all and my husband and daughter seemed to wolf it down. However, the overall presentation and fact that it was best eaten cold meant that it would be out of place at a dinner party.
If I was going to a picnic though, and wanted something that tasted great but didn’t make me look too try-hard, I would absolutely make this again. Likewise, I could see this being a much enjoyed family meal if I had time to prepare, cook and chill it properly. And that, I think, is the beauty of meatloaf. It’s not trying to be anything more than it is – occasional family meal, satisfying picnic lunch, theatrical aging rock star – it’s all good.
28g plain flour
1/4 pint of milk
Teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Teaspoon mixed herbs
28g Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
3 tablespoons tomato puree
85g pork sausage meat
450g minced beef
- Melt margarine in a saucepan and add the onions, chopped. Cook until soft but not brown.
- Dice the mushrooms and add to the softened onions. Cook for 1 minute.
- Add the flour and stir through the mushrooms for 1 minute. Keep stirring to prevent lumps forming.
- Once the flour has been absorbed, add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce is thick.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the onions and mushrooms and mix thoroughly.
- Press the meatloaf mixture into a loaf tin and bake for 1 hour – 1.5 hours.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool in the tin before transferring to a wire tray. Wrap the meatloaf in greaseproof paper and place in the fridge for 2 or 3 hours before cutting into slices.