Though it’s perfectly understandable to think meatloaf is as American as apple pie, it actually dates back to ancient Rome and is first cited in the first-century cookbook De Re Coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”), which features a recipe for chopped meat combined with spices, wine-soaked bread and pine nuts.
A variant of that combination, sans the wine, became firmly baked into the pantheon of American comfort food in the early 20th century when the combination of the invention of the mechanical meat grinder and the onset of the Great Depression made tenderizing tough cuts of cheap beef substantially easier and financially necessary, according to The Atlantic.
With the only real requirement for the dish being that ground beef, pork or both serve as the base, Depression-era home cooks experimented with a variety of starches and vegetables as fillers and used everything from canned soup and Heinz ketchup to salt and chili sauce to add flavor.
Meatloaf, like the country where it became a dinner-table staple, was a big, meaty melting pot.
“I love meatloaf, especially my mom’s meatloaf. It’s always been in our family,” Grayson Schmitz, the chef at recently re-opened Upper West Side institution Old John’s Luncheonette, tells InsideHook. “We used to have Sunday dinners when I was a kid at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother would make it the same way. Her recipe was passed down to my mom and then passed on to me. I think meatloaf is a special kind of thing, and it brings up nostalgia for people. Whether you like it or not, you always remember your first meatloaf interaction.”
As stated above, Schmitz, a two-time contestant on Top Chef, really enjoys meatloaf, which is why she put her family’s take on the classic comfort food on the menu at Old John’s.
“It’s definitely more of a retro diner item, I’d say. We were just trying to go for that homey feel. We’re bringing it back,” she says. “I’ve never really worked at a place where we served meatloaf, so it’s my first time loafing it up on a menu. I’ve definitely never made my mom’s meatloaf professionally before. I haven’t changed it at all, except for the salt content. I put a little bit more salt and that’s it. It’s the same. That recipe is legit.”
Served alongside a potato puree and French beans with brown butter and almonds, Schmitz’s My Momma’s Meatloaf is defined by what’s served on top of it.
“For me, it’s all about the sauce,” she says. “My family’s sauce is super tangy and kind of barbecue-y. The secret is dried Colman’s mustard. I don’t know if that was something they used back in the ’40s when my grandmother made it. I’m from Wisconsin and there’s a huge German population. A lot of my comfort food cooking comes from that for sure. My family is very German, so mustard would make sense. Maybe that’s where it comes from. I’m not sure. I’ve seen people make meatloaf without sauce, but meatloaf without sauce is like a hot dog without a bun. The sauce is paramount. I think that’s my favorite part about this specific meatloaf. The tang.”
Besides the need for tang, any other tips?
“I feel the most important thing for meatloaf is to make sure it’s not comparable to a meatball,” Schmitz says. “Meatballs are usually a different kind of texture. And the trick of making a really, really good meatloaf is to soak the breadcrumb in milk. Then you have to stir it until your hands feel like they’re going to fall off. That’s the trick.”
If you’re ready to get saucin’ and stirrin’, Schmitz’s family recipe from the ’40s is below.
Chef Grayson Schmitz’s My Momma’s Meatloaf
Ingredients for the meatloaf
- ⅔ cup Bread Crumbs
- 1 cup Whole Milk
- 1½ lbs Ground Beef
- 2 Eggs, beaten
- ¼ cup Onion, grated
- 3 Garlic Cloves, grated
- 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
- ⅛ teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
- ½ teaspoon Ground Sage
- Soak crumbs in milk, let sit for a few minutes.
- Add the beef, eggs, onion, garlic and seasonings, mix very well.
- Place the meatloaf in a 4 ¾” x 8 ¾” loaf pan.
- Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 1½ hours.
Ingredients for the sauce
- ¾ cup Brown Sugar
- 1 cup Ketchup
- 1 teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
- 4 teaspoons Colman’s Dry Mustard
- Mix all ingredients together, bring to a boil, then reserve.
Assembly of meatloaf and sauce
- When the meatloaf is cooked, strain the fat out of the pan, let it cool a bit, then carefully remove it from the loaf pan.
- Slice the meatloaf into portions of one or two slices, place on a greased pan, sliced sides down, and glaze the meatloaf with the sauce.
- Boil for a few minutes or until the sauce gets bubbly and caramelized.
- Serve with mashed potatoes and French green beans.
- Yields approximately four to six portions.