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The Tradition and Evolution of Meatloaf

The holidays might bring out the traditionalist in every aspiring chef, but what if you're one of those risk-takers? You know, the type who makes a tofurkey? Well, if you're of the opinion that feasts aren't the right time to innovate, we've got a suggestion for you: Consider the iconic meatloaf. Think of all the ways in which you can add your own touch to the ultimate comfort meal. That's what Nina Barrett recently did.

With cold, dark nights upon us, the weather is perfect for that most American of comfort foods: meatloaf. Now, some folks look at meatloaf and see what is; others look at meatloaf and see what ought to be. For WBEZ, Nina Barrett has this report.

One recent Saturday night, I invited a handful of guests—and five meatloafs—over for a dinner party.

Nina BARRETT: You're here! Come in!
ELLEN BARISH: Oh, it smells like meatloaf in here.
BARRETT: Yeah!
E BARISH: Fab-O!
DAVID BARISH: Vegan night?
BARRETT: Oh, no!

Now, you might think that even one meatloaf would have been one too many for dinner party purposes. Because isn't “meatloaf” essentially a culinary synonym for: BORING?

It's the dish everyone's mom could—and did—make. All you have to do is put ground meat in a bowl with chopped onions, a starch filler and an egg to bind it, and some seasonings. Then you roll up your sleeves, stick your hands in, and [SQUISHING SOUNDS] knead the squishy mess gently till it's mixed. Then you bake it for an hour at 350 and voila: America's most dependably dull comfort dinner.

But for a dull food, meatloaf has the power to elicit strangely passionate feelings. The meatloaf they grew up eating looms very large in most people's imaginations. It's the meatloaf they either spend the rest of their lives trying to re-create—or to re-invent. SO THIS DINNER PARTY IS A WAY TO EXPLORE THE VARIATIONS OF MEATLOAF. STARTING WITH ONE MOMMA'S.

ARIS GEORGIADIS: Her first meatloaf, she basically took Greek cooking and took the idea of a kefte and made it into a loaf. It's like a spiced burger, but it has rice in it. TEQUIA BURT: It's like meatloaf! GEORGIADIS: Yeah, you just take what would have been a meatball, and shape it into a loaf that has rice in it.

That's Aris Georgiadis, of Evanston. His mom saw meatloaf as the ideal way to get her picky but highly carnivorous son to eat. But his girlfriend Emily York is far from carnivorous, so tonight they've brought along a Compromise Loaf.

EMILY YORK: Aris has just moved here from New York and we are learning to eat our meals together. I don't eat that much meat, and meatloaf is one of his favorite dinners. So we've been trying to figure out how to have meatloaf together. So I thought maybe we could try this turkey meatloaf with sun-dried tomatoes and feta.

David Barish of Skokie grew up with what he describes as basically a giant baked hamburger. He was fond of it, but he views it as a blank canvas for kitchen creativity. What he's brought along tonight is more like a giant Italian meatball.

D BARISH: I made some pizza sauce first, and then roasted some peppers and figured out what I would do next.

His wife Ellen isn't much of a carnivore, either, but eyeing the five glistening meatloafs on the table, she almost wishes she were.

E BARISH: My mom was not a cooker-mom. She was a Swanson's-frozen-dinner-heater mom, so I don't have a Meatloaf of Origin to go by, and I'm very sad about that right now. I'm starting to feel the void.

For Tequia Burt of Chicago, who came with her husband Joe Besharse, you just can't even think about meatloaf without those fundamentally American kitchen herbs and seasonings: Lipton Soup Mix and ketchup.

BURT: I sort of combined my mother's and my grandmother's recipe. Because my mother is getting too fancy nowadays, so I had to take it back a little more, and so I crumbled in a little bit of Ritz crackers in there, and a ketchup glaze.

BESHARSE: A whole sleeve of Ritz crackers! And it's heart-healthy because of the oatmeal!

As for me, I too am more of a traditionalist. But I couldn't choose which one of my two ancestral meatloafs to offer, so I made them both: the one from the Quaker Oatmeal box that I like to drape with bacon, because come on, heart-healthiness is SO NOT the point of meatloaf. And Meatloaf a la Mode, straight out of the Betty Crocker NEW Boys and Girls Cook Book (which was technically only new circa 1965). It looks like a pie cut into six wedges, each one of them topped with an ice-cream scooper full of mashed potatoes.

Well, bless Betty Crocker's heart, she sure knew a thing or two about the importance of plating. Because even though this is the fifth meatloaf we've dug into, everyone eagerly takes half a wedge—except Aris, who takes a whole one—and gobbles it up.

D BARISH: I like the a la Mode thing: grab a little mashed potato, grab a forkful of meatloaf. Mmmm. Mmmmm.

It was dazzling, actually, how different each one of these five meatloafs was. There was just one thing they all had in common, the step everyone agreed was critical.

BESHARSE: And did you all use your hands? EVERYONE: Oh yeah! You have to! D BARISH: And you have to wash your hands multiple times… N BARRETT: I remember it as one of the big sensual memories of childhood, that you got to stick your hands in there and squish everything around. GEORGIADIS: Some of the recipes I read said to stir it with a spoon, and I'm like: WHY? That's just wrong. I'm gonna roll up my sleeves and get in there and form a loaf with my hands. Spoon? Spoon? That's just wrong!

D BARISH: But what I'm really impressed with is that you have really simple Mom recipes that are still delightful and still unique, and you don't feel like you're just eating a whole lump'O'beef. You're eating something where you just really want another forkful until you're just too full to do it.

GEORGIADIS: And that's the Power of Meatloaf. It makes you just really think of Mom, and it's all good after that.

Aris is right. Meatloaf is as much about the hands that shape it as it is about what goes into it—not just our own hands, but our mothers' and grandmothers' and maybe even our fathers'. And there's no better way to spend a Saturday night than with your friends, and with all the memories that come along with a very generous helping of meatloaf.

MUSIC: Meatloaf's “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”

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