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5 Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Meatloaf

5 Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Meatloaf

If your childhood was like mine, meatloaf made frequent appearances on your dinner table. It was frugal and kid-friendly, and my dad would take a meatloaf sandwich to work the next day. I liked it OK, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that I really started to enjoy it — perhaps for the same reasons my own mother liked it.

Meatloaf is one of those under-appreciated, all-American type dishes that we don’t often pay that much attention to. But the reality is that it has a rich history. Here are five facts about meatloaf that may help you appreciate it more.

1. Meatloaf has a long and ancient history
Patties or “loaves” of minced meat, mixed with a variety of ingredients, are part of many culinary histories. Germans hid boiled eggs inside meatloaf, the Romans enjoyed theirs made with wine-soaked bread, spices, and pinenuts, Medieval Europe served it mixed with with fruit, nuts and seasonings. Sometimes it was served hot, or wrapped in ham, or served cold with sauces, or was found jiggling in layers of gelatin. From the beginning, meatloaf showed us how much potential we have for the re-invention of food.

2. Modern meatloaf followed the invention of the meat grinder
Before the meat grinder, meat had to be laboriously minced by hand. The meat grinder changed all of that, making the process much quicker. It may be rare to own now, but a meat grinder used to be a normal kitchen tool, ensuring that everyone could grind his or her own meat. And what better use for ground beef than meatloaf? Meatloaf became much more popular after this important culinary invention.

3. Meatloaf was comforting during the Great Depression
The Great Depression was hard on the majority of Americans, with millions out of work, the stock market crash, and the Dust Bowl. With meatloaf’s ability to stretch cheap meat into even more meals by the addition of cheap oats, breadcrumbs, and other starches, it’s no wonder this filling dish gained even more appreciation in the hearts of Americans during this time frame.

4. Meatloaf was popular during World War II
For many of the same reasons, meatloaf grew in popularity during World War II as well. A version by “Penny Prudence” was promoted with the name of “Vitality Loaf” during this time frame. It was formulated for getting as much nutrition as possible on the dinner table for a low cost. Vegetarian options also started circulated as rations cut down on the availability of meat. The picture above was likely part of the “Health for Victory” campaign, focused on helping war time families get through the war with good nutrition despite shortages of staples such as meat. Meat-stretching recipes like meatloaf were an obvious choice. With mothers working outside the home at higher rates, I’m sure ease of preparation was also a reason for its popularity.

5. Meatloaf is incredibly adaptable
Many home cooking-style restaurants serve classic meatloaf, with diners appreciating the meatloaf that has survived through all of this history. For some, it speaks of a mother’s love. But since meatloaf takes on variations so easily, the fine dining scene also features it with rich and exotic ingredients, showing that it dresses up just as well as it dresses down. And there are plenty of recipes for making it at home that use more specialty items like mushrooms, wines, special spices, unusual meats, and more. You can keep it as plain and simple, or as fancy as you like.

The reason meatloaf has stayed with us through so many generations? It’s a master of evolution. It’s lived through ancient times, the Industrial Revolution, world wars, heart breaking depressions, nasty processed foods, and fancy gourmet versions, all because it is so adaptable. With such skills, it’s sure to outlast us, as each generations makes it their own.

If you want to play around with a vegan loaf recipe, check out the Magical Loaf Studio, where you can plug in what ingredients you have on hand, and a customized vegan loaf recipe will pop up!

Article by Kimi Harris

Main photo CC by Renee Comet

World War II photo by Seattle Municipal Archives/flickr


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+ add your own
4:19AM PDT on May 20, 2015

Yep, I remember my mother having a meat grinder which you attached to the kitchen bench, and she made her own mince. Interesting article, and thanks for the vegan link.

7:32AM PST on Jan 2, 2015

Thank you!

12:32AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

every now and then, a good meatloaf hits the spot.

3:57AM PDT on May 21, 2014

I liked reading about the history of the meatloaf. Thanks for the info.

I hate to admit this, but my husband makes a better meatloaf than I do. He adds all the good stuff, then flattens it out. He adds cheese slices and then folds it over. It is delicious!!

10:05AM PDT on Apr 9, 2014

Interesting. Many foods have quite a long history, some very old and there are recipes from pioneers of long ago for a number of foods.

It is always interesting to learn about the history of many foods.

Melania P tells us all to: "Don´t eat beef."
Whatever I do eat is of course, my own free choice. Of course, one can also make meatloaf from chicken, turkey, pork, etc.

Pass the meatloaf. There is no beef about meatloaf from omnivores.

1:47AM PDT on Apr 8, 2014

Thank you.

9:47AM PDT on Mar 27, 2014

Don´t eat beef

9:17AM PDT on Mar 14, 2014

Meatloaf is as versatile as the hot dog or hamburger!
You add/take away what you want, as far as taste goes.
It's a great night for meatloaf! :-)

4:33PM PDT on Mar 13, 2014

Thank you. Really rescues a part of my childhood. I remember my mother mixing meatloaf with bread crumbs to stiffen.Nowadays, I appreciate more vegetarian meatloaf.

8:28AM PDT on Mar 13, 2014

Diane & Dale - Know Exactly what you're talking about! I had forks RAMMED against my teeth up til I was 9 yrs. old; my parents had such a power trip about what I would eat.
By 10, I just grew out of that stage and, I guess, so did they.
So they dealt with the fact that I would not eat eggs or raw spinach or liver because I Would eat the mushrooms, broccoli and fish.
And thanks to my in-laws, I now know about artichokes and crabs and how wonderful they are. As for Kale - I used the recipe on this site to make those chips. I would Hate Kale otherwise. Don't buy the ones in the store; they're lousy and Way overpriced. They're best served slightly warm and crispy from the oven. Makes for a really, really Fun side dish!
WoW! Chips with dinner!
They still make fun of me in my 50's because I haven't touched pork since I made a conscience decision not to eat it at age 25. Their problem, not mine.

And MarilynBusy - I meant for the cheese to be Incorporated INTO the loaf, not just on top. Sorry I made that confusing. I add it last into the loaf precisely because I'm trying to Avoid pockets of melted cheese and have that taste and texture Throughout the loaf.

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