Meatloaf is having a small moment, thanks to Chris Christie’s ongoing humiliations at the hands of Donald Trump. But luckily we have real political writers, Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, to give us the real background on the storied loaf. Bruni introduced their new book, A Meatloaf in Every Oven, at CUNY’s Macauley Honors College, last Thursday. Steinhauer, who cover Congress for the New York Times, couldn’t be there (apparently there’s a lot going on there this month?) but he was interviewed by Chadwick Boyd. And yes, there was meatloaf.
Bruni began by reading from the book’s introduction. His loaf-love goes back to his mother’s recipe, and he met a kindred spirit when he connected with Steinhauer at the NYT. After years of sending each other meatloaf recipes, tips, and ideas, the two writers decided that a book was the natural next step. “People have really strong opinions on it. There’s an enormous amount of meatloaf bigotry. It’s an oppressed food!” Bruni said. “If people ask what you’re serving for dinner and you say meatloaf, they feel like they’ve been put in the back of the airplane next to the bathrooms. But when they try it, they get it.” Bruni especially likes serving his Cheesy Chorizo Meatloaf, which is on the menu at the Nomad through the end of the month.
Meatloaf can be about coming together – “If you take the shape out of the equation, almost every culture has something similar,” said Bruni. The book includes conversations between the two cooks as they developed and tested recipes in their respective kitchens, but the process wasn’t as smooth as a proper meat-batter. They disagreed on a turkey chipotle loaf that Steinhauer loved and Bruni didn’t, and in the end, it did not make the cut.
Many others did make it in, though, even including some meatless loaves. There are contributions from famous chefs and others who are well-known for less savory reasons. As a former restaurant critic, Bruni took the lead on recipes from chefs: “I no longer have any influence over their lives, but it’s weird, chefs never get a critic out of their systems.” They aimed to please, and many sent in recipes that haven’t appeared elsewhere.
Steinhauer took on recipes from politicians. “Jennifer is always talking about food with Susan Collins, and she offered her family’s recipe. They are always gossiping in the corner and the other reporters think Jennifer is getting a scoop, but it’s just food.” Paul Ryan heard about the project and offered his, so they had to ask Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to make it a bipartisan effort. “It almost seems like their aides picked them out perfectly to complement their brands. Chuck’s is ten entrees in one dish, wanting so desperately to be liked by all sides – we called it the Omnibus Loaf.”
Because of all the sources, the recipes have a wide range of effort-to-results. Bruni’s says that while Batali’s is technically better than his mother’s, “it reflects an amount of details and attention. My mother’s is simple and economical. But I’ve erected a meatloaf memorial to my mother; you have to be careful with it.”
Here are some tips from Bruni on building a perfect loaf:
- Don’t try to lighten it up. “If it’s Diet Night, go elsewhere. You need the fat to make the loaf moist. If you’re using poultry, you need the dark meat.”
- Have a favorite meatball recipe? You can adapt it. “A meatball is to a meatloaf like a sapling is to a tree – it just doesn’t have time to grow.” Some meatballs work perfectly if you scale them up, but others you may need an add an extra egg, or play with your meat-to-binder ratio to hold up the larger mass.
- They don’t recommend making meatloaf in a loaf pan if you can help it. The pan makes it hard to cut and inhibits the release of juices. They prefer a baking sheet with a lip and a layer of aluminum foil, or even a cast-iron skillet.
- Sauteeing your onions and other vegetables will give you a nuanced flavor. “It puts the vegetables in their proper role,” he said.
- They do not believe in adding Lipton’s soup mix, garlic powder or onion powder, no matter what your elder family members say.
- You can substitute bread soaked in milk, or even cooked rice, for some or all of the dry bread crumb for a moist, supple loaf.
- Try a new protein: “Lamb is the undersung meat for meatloaf.”
- Cook your loaf the way you usually eat your meat – if you like a burger medium rare, try your meatloaf that way too. “Most people overcook meatloaf out of outdated fears of pork and trichinosis.”