One man’s meatloaf is another man’s poison

October 18, 2017

I thought I made it clear. I don’t like meatloaf.

In my very first column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch nearly four years ago, I wrote that I will try almost anything “except meatloaf. That is the one food I will not eat.”

As it turns out, I am not alone in this perfectly understandable and even admirable trait. Our esteemed restaurant critic Ian Froeb, a man widely renowned for his impeccable taste and educated palate, also hates the stuff.

So our boss and colleagues, who at first seem like such nice people but turn out to be the children of Satan, decided it would be fun to force us to eat it. A lot of it.

If you’ve ever seen “A Clockwork Orange,” you’ll remember the scene in which Malcolm McDowell is strapped to a chair and forced to watch images of violence. It was like that, only with our former friends pointing at us and laughing.

Before I get to the sordid details, I have been thinking about why I dislike meatloaf so much. I can’t speak for Ian, but I think the problem I have with it is that it is — or at least was, when I was young and impressionable — invariably overcooked.

Someone else, I forget who, had this theory, and it seems right to me. The traditional mixture for a meatloaf is equal parts beef, veal and pork. But for pork to be free from unpleasant disease, it has to be (or at least had to be) fully cooked. That meant the beef and veal were, by definition, overcooked and dry.

To cover up this flaw, cooks douse it in what they call a sauce but is in fact, generally, ketchup. Maybe ketchup with a few things added to it. Maybe a tomato sauce that isn’t exactly ketchup, but is, shall we say, ketchupy.

So meatloaf is overcooked, dry ground meat splashed with ketchup. I don’t understand why that’s considered desirable.

Six of our colleagues presented us with their best meatloaves (meatloafs? meats loaf?). Then they watched us choke it down while we made mean comments about it. We felt kind of bad about it, but you have to admit they deserved it: They were feeding us meatloaf.

We started with No Frills Meatloaf. “I think I tasted a frill,” Ian said.

This was our control meatloaf, a standard, cooked-through slab of ground meat with a drizzle of ketchup. It tasted like meatloaf. In other words, it reminded me of everything I don’t like about meatloaf.

We were next served the Classic Meatloaf which, as Ian pointed out, was moister than the control meatloaf. It also had bell pepper, which sent Ian into full-blown restaurant-critic mode: “The bell pepper isn’t very complex, but it cuts the sweetness a little bit.”

I thought it was marked by that overwhelming blandness that so often afflicts meatloaf. More salt would have helped, but it wouldn’t have helped much.

So we sampled the Italian Meatloaf. I looked at Ian. Ian looked at me.

“What about this strikes you as Italian?” I said.

“The name,” he said.

Admittedly, that was before I had a bite with a thin slice of canned black olive in it, which is sort of Italian. And to be perfectly fair to the person who made it, it had enough spice that we thought it was made with not enough Italian sausage, when it actually had no sausage at all.

Even so, it tasted more of meatloaf than Italy.

Everyone oohed and aahed at the next offering, Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf with Apple-Bourbon Barbecue Sauce (“everyone,” in this case, meaning “everyone but Ian and me”).

I am of the opinion that the national obsession with bacon is like a fad that just won’t go away. It’s as if the country is sharing the same joke they can’t stop making, such as when everyone said “I’m just sayin’” or “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” or “everything tastes better with bacon.”

I think of it as a crutch. When you want to add actual flavor to something, wrap it in bacon. Which is why you’d think it would help improve meatloaf.

But in this dish, it was the superb Apple-Bourbon Barbecue Sauce that really stood out. That stuff was great. The only problem was, it didn’t go with meatloaf. To our taste, it was too sweet for any red meat.

But chicken? Slather that sauce on grilled chicken and you’d have yourself a meal.

The Classic Smoked Meatloaf, which we had next, was a good idea. A little bit of smoke, but not too much, is a wonderful way to mask the dreariness that makes most meatloaf so dispirited.

We both liked the smoke, but we were not as fond of the texture. This loaf was soft and mushy on top (I thought it had the texture of steak tartare, but not, alas, the taste). The bottom part was coarser and chewier.

Finally, we got to the last sample, Buffalo Chicken Meatloaf.

I love Buffalo chicken wings, but this loaf had neither the vinegar tang nor the crisp heat I associate with Buffalo sauce. It did have blue cheese in it, which I mistook for cream cheese. The loaf tasted like mush to me, but Ian disagreed.

“Do you know Nutra- loaf? It’s what they give to prisoners when they’ve been bad,” he said.

Perhaps we were being cruel, but true cruelty is making people eat meatloaf who don’t like it.

Did the experience change us? Did we suddenly become meatloaf fans?

Of course not.

Ian said, “At this point in my life, I’m more ambivalent about meat meatloaf than anti-meatloaf. And (after this tasting) I’m still ambivalent.”

My mind hasn’t been changed, either. Given the choice between meatloaf and anything else, I’ll always take anything else.

Editor’s note: The rest of us loved them all and didn’t leave a single crumb. So there.