by Wayne Geiger
There’s an old adage that suggests, “there’s two things you should never talk about in public: religion and politics. The obvious reason is the potential for disagreement and inevitable conflict. I’d like to suggest a third topic.
It was an ordinary day. I was chatting with a group of people in a circle. The conversation was light and pleasant. I’m not sure who brought it up, but a potentially awkward and polarizing topic disrupted the harmonic discourse.
Once this topic emerged, in rapid fire succession, everyone felt compelled to adamantly and unapologetically share their personal opinion. You probably already guessed the topic: meatloaf.
Before too long, I too, was caught up in the debate as a string of buried emotions began to well up in my soul. Like a near-death experience, decades of meatloaf memories flooded my mind. I was catapulted back to my childhood, sitting at the dining table, and eating rectangular meat with bar-b-que sauce.
I also thought of Randy, Ralphie’s little brother in “A Christmas Story,” who sat at the dinner table with a load of meatloaf on his plate. He exclaimed in defiance, “Meatloaf, smeatloaf, double-beatloaf. I hate meatloaf.” This was the breaking point for his father who responded, “Alright, I'll get that kid to eat. Where's my screwdriver and my plumber's helper? I'll open up his mouth and I'll shove it in.” Meatloaf, it seems, is an emotional topic and brings out the best and worst in us.
As the meatloaf discussion continued, I learned a couple of things about my friends. Meatloaf has a way of exposing the soul.
The majority of the group didn’t like meatloaf growing up. However, in the present, if they liked meatloaf, they really only liked their own and were only mildly open to any type of revision to their current recipe.
I was not a huge fan of meatloaf growing up (sorry mom). Maybe it was the name—a compound word that sounds utterly revolting: A loaf of meat. Personally, I think only bread and cake should come in loaves. Loaves of meat are just unnatural.
As time went on, I learned that I preferred the meaty mixture with the appropriate side dishes. For me, anything served with brown gravy, mashed potatoes, and corn couldn’t be all bad—especially if you just mixed them all together. Like love, gravy covers a multitude of sins.
Meatloaf has quite the history. Kimi Harris, for MNN.com, wrote, “Germans hid boiled eggs inside meatloaf, the Romans enjoyed theirs made with wine-soaked bread, spices, and pinenuts. Medieval Europe served it mixed 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.”
As time marched on, meatloaf became less of a cuisine and more of a necessity. In an article in Bon Appetit by Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, they noted that meatloaf “was often a sort of culinary scrap heap, a refuge for leftovers, in the spirit of many casseroles and of shepherd’s pie. It was a way to stretch protein. It was a way to use up excess vegetables. It was a ragtag orchestra of ingredients on the verge of expiration.” Sounds yummy! All you need is brown gravy.
In the U.S., meatloaf was not mentioned in print until the late 1800s. It appeared in connection with the invention of the meat grinder. Try not to gag. Some researchers suggest that meatloaf may have even been eaten for breakfast. Okay, now you can gag.
For obvious reasons, meatloaf really took off during the Great Depression. Combined with fillers like oats, breadcrumbs, and other starches, it was a way to extend protein and feed more with less. In a very difficult time in our nation’s history: meatloaf saved lives.
Intrigued, and against my better judgment, I decided to do a non-scientific Facebook poll on the topic of meatloaf. Like sharks responding to blood in the water, people felt compelled to share their deep, emotional connection to meatloaf. I was able to subdivide the comments into several categories.
Some People Hate Meatloaf:
Many respondents, like Ralphie’s brother Randy, just don’t like meatloaf. Period. For example, Bobbye said, “I DO NOT LIKE MEATLOAF. I have tried about every recipe that I came across and still DO NOT LIKE MEATLOAF” (emphasis hers). Some indicated that they were forced to eat it as a kid. Sharing a traumatic experience, Cory wrote, “It’s the worst ever! I told my dad when I was 5 I knew I would hate it, but he made me try it anyway. One bite and I proved him right. He never made me try it again!!”
Carolyn, who likes green eggs and ham, but not meatloaf, blurted, “I do not like any meat in a loaf. I would not like it here or there. I would not like it ANYWHERE!”
Meatloaf is Highly Controversial:
Everyone has an opinion on meatloaf. In fact, meatloaf is so controversial that it even divides families. Amy wrote, “I have a crockpot recipe that finally satisfied my family after trying other recipes. But, ‘one’ of my children can’t stand the smell and I have to text her the day before I make it to warn her not to come over that day.”
Meatloaf even affects marriages. Lara wrote, “As newlyweds, my hubby and I arrived late to choir practice one evening. His excuse was that we were finishing dinner. The choir members asked what I had made. When he responded, ‘Meatloaf,’ a chorus of ladies declared that the honeymoon was over.” To some, meatloaf is a subject of contention and division and an indicator of familial and marital intimacy.
Meatloaf Brings out Some Deep Emotion:
Personal emotions concerning meatloaf vary on both sides of the spectrum. For some, meatloaf brings out some very positive emotions and a sense of family. Kay remembered, “My favorite memory of what home felt like as a child involves meatloaf.” Courtney agreed, noting, “Meatloaf was actually my favorite food as a child! I still like it to this day, but probably not as much as when I was growing up.” Sandy remembered, “I loved my mom’s old-fashioned meatloaf. I try to replicate it but can’t seem to quite get it right. She made it with ketchup and put ketchup on top. Sweet memories of my mom.”
To many people, meatloaf is a comfort food and has the power to conjure up deep emotions—bringing us home to our roots. It is a strong connection of family and love.
Meatloaf is Personal:
People who like meatloaf are incredibly opinionated and unapologetically vocal. Everyone had an opinion on a recipe or topping. Wendy said, “Meatloaf is not ready to serve if it doesn't have a glaze of brown sugar, ketchup and honey baked in the top.”
Kala agreed. She said, “if it doesn't have honey, brown sugar, and ketchup on top, you're doing it wrong.” And of course, meatloaf is meant to be eaten at home. Aimee said, “It's a hit or miss when at a restaurant- it’s best to see a picture first or don't risk it!”
I fall into this camp. I only like one meatloaf these days. My wife’s. Although I don’t have the exact recipe, it’s a mixture of meat, oats, bacon, green peppers, onions, and spicy tomatoes, topped with french fried onions. It’s not cooked in a loaf—but in a larger pan. I guess the honeymoon is not over.
To this day, when my wife invites one of our sons to come over for dinner, she asks, “What would you like to eat?” Without hesitation, he says, “Meatloaf.” Decades from now, when we have passed and all that is left is the memory of the sweet aroma of Momma’s meatloaf, no doubt, he will remember it fondly, smile, and may even shed a tear. That’s the power of meatloaf.
Meatloaf has quite the history and affects us deeply. Meatloaf is here to stay. So, embrace the meaty moments and write down your recipe for future generations. But, remember, meatloaf, is a highly controversial topic and it’s best not to bring it up in public.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer. He can be reached at waynegeiger.com.