Donald Trump just ordered it. Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times just wrote — a LOT — about it, with everyone from Mario Batali to Nancy Pelosi getting in on the action. What’s up with meatloaf?
Is meatloaf having an odd, bipartisan moment?
Donald Trump recently ordered it for himself and, pre-emptively, Chris Christie. “I’m telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous,” Trump reportedly said. (Christie wasn’t objecting: Apparently, he’ll eat whatever Trump tells him to.)
Meanwhile, two New York Times writers just published the cookbook “A Meatloaf in Every Oven: Two Chatty Cooks, One Iconic Dish and Dozens of Recipes — From Mom’s to Mario Batali’s.” The authors — Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic and current op-ed columnist, and Jennifer Steinhauer, on the Congress beat — both cover politics. The title echoes Herbert Hoover’s very, very failed promise to put “a chicken in every pot” in the U.S.A. (are Bruni and Steinhauer trying to tell us something?).
As the subtitle indicates, recipes from family, friends and famous chefs (April Bloomfield, Bobby Flay, Michael Solomonov and more) find their way into the pages, but so do four variations on meatloaf from Steinhauer’s congressional connections.
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Both sides of the aisle are represented: Paul Ryan’s meatloaf starts with shooting your own deer (or at least acquiring some ground venison), while Nancy Pelosi contributes an “Italian-Style Bison Loaf.” “We live in a polarized political culture, and yet somehow the loaf unites us,” the authors optimistically write.
The book itself is nuts: 49 recipes, including Bruni’s mom’s meatloaf, seven kinds of vegetarian meatloaf (which they call, distressingly, “salad made solid”), Taco Meatloaf, and meatloaf with, actually, nuts, in the form of a Lebanese-style Kibbeh Loaf. The introduction (14 pages!) waxes effusive: “Meatloaf is the most personal of dishes … Meatloaf is mirror: You are how you loaf. Meatloaf is metaphor: It’s life made loaf.” One can only empathize when Bruni and Steinhauer come a little unhinged, as in the intro to the (entire!) chapter on lamb meatloaf, where they joke about “The Silence of the Lambs,” then sleep deprivation and counting sheep. Imagine how much time they spent thinking about, making and eating meatloaf — they’re probably very, very over it.
While I’d say you’re still a full-fledged person if you don’t have a meatloaf recipe, there may be something to the contention of “A Meatloaf in Every Oven” that it’s “the most personal of dishes.” My grandmother made highly mediocre meatloaf: not very flavorful, always dry. She used only ground beef for the meat, which made all the sense in the world — since she raised Angus cattle outside of Sunnyside in Eastern Washington — but made for a boring meatloaf.
Once, when she was getting on in years but still had a few cows (she was 78 when the last one went to the butcher), I was over there without my parents and set out to make her supper. There was ground beef, celery, bread, onion … and a few pork breakfast sausages. In one of my first forays into kitchen improvisation, I made a meatloaf based on what she told me, but with the sausage meat, too, more spices and just more stuff. My grandma was not an effusive woman; she did not cotton to anything newfangled. At the table, she said something like, “Well, that’s good meatloaf, Bethy.” This is the kind of praise that lasts forever.
While it seems foolish to take issue with our nation’s foremost meatloaf experts, I must quibble with Bruni and Steinhauer on two points:
First, they say to sauté your onion and celery before mixing it in, lest the onion taste too sharp. My onion seems to cook up great embedded in the hot fat and juices of the meat, and it and the celery retain a bit of desirable texture. Sautéing also represents an extra step, and meatloaf should be simple, for it is just meatloaf.
Secondly, they recommend baking your meatloaf in a lump, in the center of a cast-iron skillet or bigger baking pan, so that the fat and juices run out, then basting it. Again, that’s another step — who wants to baste meatloaf? In a loaf pan, it’s cooking in its own juices, soaking in its own bubbling fat, and this is part of what makes meatloaf good.
Bruni and Steinhauer’s best tip seems simple, but it’s a good one: Take your meat and eggs out of the fridge a little ahead of time, and your hands won’t get so cold while mixing.
If meatloaf is political, it represents the best of American aspirations — it’s a dish in which pretty much anything may find a home, less a melting pot than a welcoming, forgiving, egalitarian mashup. Amounts are fairly approximate. Old baguette and stale sandwich bread both work great. I’ve never draped a strip or two of bacon over the top, but that seems like a fine idea. Got a lonely shallot? Chop it up and toss it in.
I still make meatloaf like I made for my grandma sometimes, but now that she’s gone, I usually like to use some ground beef and some of my cousin Gene’s lamb — he raises them just down the road from my grandma’s old place. As with her cattle, the meat tastes extra good. Maybe it’s a waste to put it in meatloaf, but it’s a family thing.
All amounts may be considered fairly approximate: Meatloaf is forgiving. This meatloaf is built for comfort, not excitement, so feel free to add some cayenne or dashes of hot sauce.
1 pound ground beef (the less lean, the better)
½ pound ground lamb
1 cup finely chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery (about 1 big rib)
1 ½ cups lightly toasted white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (use the crumbs, too)
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or ketchup)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon dried herbs or 2-3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh herbs (whatever you like or have on hand: thyme, marjoram, rosemary, sage, savory, basil …)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 grinds of fresh-ground pepper
1. Get out the beef, lamb and eggs to let them warm up while you do the rest of the prep (otherwise, at the mixing stage, your hands will get really cold). Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Put all the ingredients in a large bowl. If you’re using dried herbs, crumble them as you add them.
3. Mix with your bare hands until combined. (I feel like I should say mix gently, and don’t overmix, but I don’t think it actually matters — this is meatloaf, people.) Put the mixture in a loaf pan; it should just fit (don’t pack it down too firmly).
4. Bake for 1 hour.
5. Let stand 5-10 minutes, then spoon some of the fat from the bottom of the pan over each slice when serving. Extra sprigs of fresh herbs make a nice garnish if you have them and you want to be fancy (and you could also sprinkle a bit more chopped fresh herbs over the top). If you have any leftovers, make sandwiches!