Paradise by The Oven Light

My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

Love it or hate it, you have to feel a little sorry for meat loaf.

Out of all the classic home-cooked meals, it’s the one that’s the most often rejected — a plate pushed away by a picky eater’s hand; fed to the dog surreptitiously under the table — when it shows up in the weekly dinner rotation. As a child, I often ranked which dishes would make the best weapons in my edible arsenal if a food fight ever broke out, and meat loaf was always at the top of the list: a fine projectile, but nothing I really wanted to put in my mouth.

Meat loaf has also long been a frequent punching bag in popular culture, where its malleable, meaty form easily absorbs the many blows to the ego it’s received over the years. Who can forget the infamous scene in A Christmas Story when lead character (and BB gun lover) Ralphie’s little brother refuses to eat his meat loaf?

“Meat loaf, smeatloaf, double-beatloaf. I hate meatloaf!” he declares, mauling his mashed potatoes on top of the meat-hunk.

Maybe it’s the name “meat loaf” itself that’s led to so much consternation over the dish’s public persona. People generally want to know what kind of meat they’re eating — not just that they’re eating some nebulous combination of ground meats — and the vagueness of “meat loaf” can lead to a certain kind of skepticism. If you order a pork chop, you understand the sort of gnaw-on-the-bone joyfulness that’s headed your way. Grill up a T-bone steak and you’ll soon be basking in its delicious bad-boy edge. A filet is sure to deliver an air of refinement to any occasion. Meat loaf, though? Heck, that could be anything.

And then there’s the natural wariness one feels about anything that comes in “loaf” form that’s not bread. Try tacking any dinner item onto the front of the word loaf — tuna loaf, beet loaf, turkey loaf — and you’ll soon find that even previously enticing ingredients are made just a little less so by its presence. The “loaf” sticking point is particularly pointed when it comes to meat loaf’s close cousin the meatball. For some reason, meatballs have dodged any flak about their meat moniker, ostensibly because an orb of meat seems more appetizing — maybe even charming — when compared to a loaf. Plus, meatballs often have the support of both tomato sauce and noodles as backup.

If I were meat loaf’s publicist, I’d get on a name change (and subsequent rebranding campaign) as soon as possible.

There’s also the high likelihood that many in the anti-meat loaf camp had a childhood full of, well, bad meat loaf. When I was growing up, it was widely acknowledged that my mother was an excellent dinner party planner, cocktail soirée organizer and general bon vivant, but her culinary skills were decidedly lacking. When she pulled a meat loaf out of the oven, the kitchen was often engulfed in a plume of smoke, with the dish itself resembling a fireplace log more than anything meant for human consumption. As you might imagine, the meat loaf we’d eat wasn’t just dry — it was downright mummified.

I learned quickly that meat loaf’s flexibility when it comes to ingredients and cooking techniques is both a blessing and a curse. For those who are first-timers in the kitchen, this flexibility means it’s far too easy to make the kind of rookie mistakes that would turn a person off to meat loaf. Under-seasoning the meat, for example, is a common misstep, with meat loaf makers going a little too light on the salt, pepper and spices or (yikes!) leaving them out entirely. Forgetting to pre-soak the bread crumbs will lead your meat loaf towards the pit of dried-out despair, while slicing the cooked meat loaf before it’s had time to “rest” means that the juiciness will simply leach out onto the plate instead staying inside the meat loaf where it belongs.

What’s more, sometimes people try to get a little too creative with their meat loaf presentation, using pans shaped like everything from clowns to cherubs to make the dish more appealing for a birthday or Valentine’s Day. In the 1993 not-so-classic film Another Stakeout , Rosie O’Donnell serves her neighbors meat loaf shaped like an armadillo, which inspired a range of copycats in real life. Perhaps even worse, there’s a recipe floating around online that gives step-by-step instructions for making a baby-shaped meat loaf with a bacon diaper. (Yes, really.) A loaf of meat might be a little strange, but any other shape borders on creepy.

And while bad meat loaf — for whatever reason — is an unfortunately common event, there’s thankfully a (quasi-scientific) known cure for it: finally eating good meat loaf.

Just like there are an infinite number of ways for meat loaf to go wrong, there are an equal number of ways to create a meat loaf that’s the pinnacle of satisfying, homey comfort food. Starting off with a solid blend of meats, such as combining beef with pork or veal, or using beef with a generous fat-to-meat ratio (aim for at least 15 percent) is a strong first step towards a supple meat loaf. Sautéing any vegetables before incorporating them is a must-do, as is being generous with the wet ingredients like ketchup, Worcestershire, eggs and milk. (Wet ingredients are also a great way to experiment with different flavor profiles, all while ensuring the meat loaf stays blissfully moist.) And when you’re combining the ingredients into their final loaf form, make sure to gently fold them together until just combined — don’t knead the mixture like you’re giving it a bad Swedish massage. Good meat loaf requires a tender touch.

For other forms of dinnertime “loaf” dishes, the rules shift a little bit. Working towards your first turkey loaf? Such a lean meat tends to be slightly grainy when cooked, so blending in a small amount of a fattier meat, like pork, is beneficial. Really itching to try your hand at tuna loaf? Sorry, you’re on your own with that one.

One unconventional go-to recipe that almost always causes a change of heart in meat loaf cynics is Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun meat loaf from the 1984 cookbook, Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. This spiced-up take on the classic form has found legions of fans due to its unique seasoning mix — which includes everything from cayenne to nutmeg — and a healthy kick of hot sauce.

Or perhaps on the quest to find your personal-favorite meat loaf, if becomes apparent that the greatest place to taste delectable meat loaf isn’t the dinner table at all, but the lunch tray. Plate lunch spots across Acadiana have been serving up meat loaf for generations, placed alongside delectable sidekicks like gravy-smothered rice and stewed vegetables that are more than ready to share in the tasty spotlight. Meat loaf is, if nothing else, a versatile team player.

It also makes for some of the most lauded leftovers around. The day after meat loaf is served for dinner, leftover meat loaf evangelists swear by creating a meat loaf sandwich which, in their estimation, is even better than the original. In my own personal experience, the best meat loaf sandwich is an unfussy one, where a thick slab of meat loaf is tucked between two slices of unassuming white bread, then topped with a melty slice of cheese and a slather of mayonnaise. Much like those who sing the praises of leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches, the day-after meat loaf sandwich takes eating meat loaf in an entirely different — and potentially tastier — direction.

Meat loaf isn’t just an economical dinner that can provide a complete square meal in a single serving, or something to dread in the cafeteria line. No, this Rodney Dangerfield of dinners — when prepared correctly — can be right up there with any fried chicken plate or casserole as the epitome of satisfying, nostalgia-inducing home cooking. It’s high time meat loaf starts getting the respect it deserves.