Ecumenical Meatloaf


What got my attention was a BuzzFeed post I saw a few days ago.  I would put it in the snarky-remarks-Europeans-make-about-Americans category.

Lots of snark. So much you need subcategories.  What irritates Europeans about Americans who travel abroad, for example: Americans talk too loud, Americans tell what state they come from (people from Michigan, raise your hand!). Americans are polite, they smile all the time, they engage total strangers, like cashiers, in conversation. They are fastidious about finding trash cans.  They require lots of ice.

This particular post featured 26 questions about food that non-Americans want answered. Do Americans eat glazed donuts for breakfast? Do Americans eat spaghetti out of a can? Do they eat grilled cheese with ketchup? Do they eat peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon?

Do they eat cold pizza?

Hell yes.

Do they really eat meatloaf? WTF is that?

Excuse me?  WTF is what? Meatloaf?

Okay, American food culture–there are issues.  In my final 25 years of teaching, I regularly invited students to talk about what they ate for dinner.


I admit, what I heard did not sound appetizing. For the most part their diets were dominated by industrial, preservative-enhanced, microwave-ready pseudo-foods. A popular breakfast of champions to carry into the classroom was an Otto Spunkmeyer Chocolate Chunk cookie (chunk not chip) and a 20 ounce Mountain Dew.  Or a caramel frappuccino with a bag of chips. Or cold pop tart and vitamin water.

can 4

So much ready-to-eat garbage. I had not thought junk could sustain so many.

But meatloaf? WFT? Really?

I grew up eating meatloaf.  When I was nine my mother’s was the gold standard, which stands to reason. A kid’s benchmarks are always a work in progress.

Her meatloaf was a ground beef, breadcrumb, and egg mix, seasoned with salt and pepper, the only spices she made use of. There also might have been something greenish added. And I have to suspect, somewhere in the mix was a dollop of cream of mushroom soup. This mound of meat, mixed and massaged, went into the bread pan she also used for pumpkin and banana breads. The pan ensured its loafness. What came out was brown, moist, and flavorful. Sliced, I do not think we put ketchup on it. I have no recollection of meatloaf sandwiches, meaning we must have eaten all of it in one sitting.

Benchmarks.  A work in progress.

A life in meatloafs. Some of them dubious.


Shortly after graduating from high school I ate lunch at a friend’s house. He was nineteen and married, his wife eighteen and pregnant. He served a meatloaf that had a distinctive flavor. The acronym was not in use or part of our lexicon yet, but I remember thinking: WTF.  Breakfast sausage, he said. It was part of the mix. I took another bite. Distinctive, though not altogether felicitous.

A few years later I found myself twenty-five and married, my wife not yet pregnant. I tried to recreate my mother’s meatloaf. I succeeded, but found myself wondering, What is success? There followed decades of meatloaf, in diners and bars, in egg joints, in roadside Eat-at-Joe’s, meatloafs with mushrooms piled on top, meatloafs slathered with barbecue sauce; also, so many meatloafs writ small, Swedish meatballs in church basements (and not a Swede in sight), spag and balls washed down with beer, meatball sandwiches glistening with runny spicy red tomato gunk.

meatball sandwich

Then came revelation: At my mother-in-law’s table, polpette, meatballs that she somewhat grudgingly cooked and that my wife and I could not eat fast enough. Grudgingly because, as a kid in Italy between world wars, the daughter of a man who worked for a butcher and brought home lots of meat scraps, my mother-in-law had eaten far too many meatballs and had grown to hate them.

A quick examination of the historical record suggests that, whether meatball or meatloaf, mini or maxi, short form or long form, meatloaf is an ecumenical food, casting a long shadow, as Bon Appetit attests: “There are competing histories, including the belief that meatloaf, or its closest antecedent, emerged in medieval Europe, around the fifth century, in a Mediterranean dish of finely diced meat scraps joined with fruits, nuts and seasonings.” In What’s Cooking in America, ground meat is traced back as far as Genghis Khan.  In the 13th century GK and the Golden Horde “softened the meat by placing [patties] under the saddles of their horses while riding into battle.  When it was time to eat, the meat would be eaten raw, having been tenderized by the saddle and the back of the horse.” In addition to horse, I think I smell kafta, a signature food in Middle Eastern cuisine, essentially meatloaf on a stick.


Meatloaf is a source of nutrition and joy in so many countries: Argentina has pan de Carne, Austria-Faschierter Braten, Belgium-veles brood, Chile-Asado Aleman, Cuba-pulpeta, Denmark-foreloran hare, Germany-Hackbraten, Poland-pieczeń rzymska, Sweden-köttfärslimpa, Turkey-dalyan köfte.

Did I mention polpette?

Outside our building in Italy one day I chat up Mr. Riccardi, who lives in the apartment immediately below ours. From both apartments there is a full view of Mount Titano in San Marino.  Originally from Genova, Mr. Riccardi is a retired financial manager. He rides a motorcycle. He and his wife take Italy vacations in their motorhome. Walking down the interior stairway of the building, I frequently smell good food being prepared in their apartment. Into this apartment some years ago, after a pipe in our apartment burst, a stream of our water flowed, requiring repairs, theirs and ours.

In the stairway and outside on the sidewalk, I’ve worked on repairing this relationship.

“Where do you eat,” I ask him this day, “when you go out to a restaurant around here?”

He paused to think, smiled and nodded, then named a number of places, all within the confines of little San Marino, all within a short driving distance: 5 Vie in Falciano, Il Ghetto da Ottavio in San Marino Città, Osteria da Burinon in Cailungo, Osteria Unione in Acquaviva.

We try them all. At Osteria Unione we meet Lidia, proprietor and chief cook, who serves real local home cooking. At our first visit, for lunch she serves polpettone, meatball writ large, which is to say meatloaf. It is a life-changing experience, a meatloaf for the gods, made with the beef she has boiled to make broth, then extracted, chopped, and mixed with breadcrumbs, egg, parsley, garlic, and Parmigiano Reggiano.

Back home I made Lidia’s meatloaf once a week until my wife and kids said stop, enough already.  My reaction was, WTF? Is there a better food?

polp 6polp 7polp 8polp 9

Do Americans really eat meatloaf?

Yes, they do.  Doesn’t everyone?


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