Meat Loaf – An American Institution?

Along with hamburgers and hotdogs, meat loaf ranks up there as a food that’s “as American as apple pie.” But it turns out its origins go quite far back to Roman times. In the oldest written cookbook found to date, Apicius de re Coquinaria, is a recipe for ground meat patties mixed with bread and wine. The book dates from the 4th  or 5th c. A.D.

If you’re intrigued, here’s a blog post where a man cooked the recipe and also gives more information about early precursors to meat loaf.

Early Enterprise Manufacturing meat grinder

In America, meat loaf began to appear in cookbooks in the 1880s thanks to the invention of the meat grinder. I gather the public was wary of buying ground meat, so recipes began appearing from food manufacturers to help the public understand its benefits.

During the Depression, meat loaf took off as it was a cheap alternative to other cuts of meat.  Mixed with bread or oatmeal, this also stretched the meat. Plus you could grind whatever leftover meat you had. During WWII and rationing extending, your meat was a must. The ad below is a great example of how meat loaf was promoted for this. 

There must be thousands of recipes for meat loaf. Who can forget the Micky Mouse Meat Loaf I blogged about in 2013? Well, actually I did. What an odd meat loaf that was cooked between a bottom and top layer of bread triangles.Not to be repeated!

Last week I was in the mood for meat loaf so grabbed one of my more modern cookbooks, A Taste of the Chapman, 1991. This was a fundraiser cookbook for the museum in Glens Falls, New York which I ran in the mid-1990s. It’s a great history museum just south of Lake George. Go visit!

The meat loaf has personal meaning to me. Like all fundraiser cookbooks, women (and some men) of the community submitted recipes. The meat loaf I chose is called Ellen’s Family Meat Loaf, and it was submitted by the daughter of Ginny Abbe. Ginny was our greatest financial supporter, and thanks to her generosity, we were able to add a wing onto the building and restore the exterior of the 1880s DeLong House. She was pure joy to work with. According to Ginny’s daughter, this recipe was a “generational favorite.”  Ginny’s obituary confirms that Ellen Ottman, of meat loaf fame, was her mother. Ellen lived from 1905 until 1996.

Here’s Ellen’s meat loaf:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. Saltine crackers, finally crumbled
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tbs. green pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 tbs. catsup
  • 1 tbs. horseradish
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg

Scald milk and then remove from heat

Add cracker crumbs, onion, green pepper, catsup, horseradish and salt

Mix and let stand for five minutes  

Combine milk mixture with ground beef

Add egg and mix lightly until blended

Form into a loaf and bake in a shallow pan at 350 degrees for one hour

The result was quite tasty thanks to the horseradish. It gave the meat loaf a very nice zip!

I’d love to hear about your family’s cherished meat loaf. They need to be shared!



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