Meat Loaf

Aww. I got excited because the card says meal loaf.

Meatloaf made with bread crumbs, by randychiu, on Flickr

But upon reading the ingredients, it looks like a meat loaf, and I’m guessing “Heart Book” means it came from one of the various American Heart Association cookbooks. Well, that’s far less exciting. The two have some structural similarities but are far from identical.

Meal loaf, also called nutraloaf, prison loaf, or seg loaf (as well as some other unrepeatable things) is a rare delicacy only served in very special places to very special people: prison inmates who abuse food or utensils. It’s only a few decades old, and it’s made by mashing together ingredients that would otherwise be served in a more palatable way.

The goal of meal loaf is to serve a prisoner a meal that is not especially good (so they’re not incentivized to continue abusing food) while also serving them food that requires no utensils of any kind to eat (so there’s nothing to abuse; most meal loaf is served on paper).

(Click to expand a video from MSNBC demonstrating meal loaf.)

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Chart showing cost increases in meat, lard, butter and flour between 1900 and 1910. From the January 28, 1910, Middlebury (Indiana) Independent

Meatloaf is very different, then, as its goal is to be delicious, not punitive, and to reduce the cost of meals by replacing some amount of meat with cheaper ingredients like bread, eggs, and vegetables. In most cases, this will involve some amount of bread or bread crumbs.

The technique of soaking bread in milk for extending meat is common in Italy, especially Tuscany. (Tuscan bread isn’t salted; there’s a legend that Tuscan bread doesn’t have salt in it because the Tuscans didn’t want to pay a salt tax in the 16th century, but there’s no evidence supporting that. Actually, I think they prefer the taste.)

Americans started adopting these techniques for the same reason–to reduce the cost of meat dishes. Meatloaf proliferated in the early 20th century as the cost of meat increased rapidly (see the chart above). Here’s an example from the January 28, 1910 edition of the Middlebury (Indiana) Independent:

Cold Meat Loaf

Two cupfuls chopped fresh or cooked meat, one egg, piece of butter if meat is lean, one cupful of sweet milk, two cupfuls of crackers or bread crumbs, one apple chopped fine, one onion chopped fine, salt, pepper, and sage to taste. Bake one hour.


As you can tell from the above, we used to “extend” meat with bread much further than we do now. For another example (albeit one certainly not endorsed by any health-related organizations), consider the Russian meatballs from the March 17, 1939 edition of the Hammond (Indiana) Times:

Russian meat balls make a nice dish. The recipe call for six slices white bread, one cup milk, one-half pound ground beef, teaspoon salt, one-fourth teaspoon pepper, two tablespoons fat, one large onion and three-fourths cup sour cream. Pour milk over bread and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes. Add meat, salt, pepper. Blend thoroughly with fork. Form into cakes. Slice onions and fry lightly in fat. Add meat cakes and fry gently on one side till brown. Turn and brown other side. When brown, pour sour cream over, simmer five to 10 minutes. Serve hot, with sauce from pan poured over meat balls. Yield: about eight two-inch cakes.

Today, our usual purpose in adding bread, bread crumbs, or other grain (try oatmeal) and milk to meatloaf is to keep the meat moist and the resulting product light. That usually involves quantities much more like the ones in the recipe here.

If you want to know what happened to meatloaf after 1910, visit an earlier post about hash from Avon Lake, Ohio, where we talked about blue plate specials and the hash houses that served them.

From a box sold in Martinez, California.

Meal Loaf

1/2 c. skim milk
2 slices bread, broken
1 lb. lean ground beef
2 egg whites, slightly beaten
1/2 c. chopped onion
2 tsp. chopped celery
2 Tbsp. unsalted ketchup
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/2 t. pepper
1/8 t. dry mustard powder
1/8 t. sage
1/8 t. garlic powder

Pour milk over bread and allow to stand five minutes. Mix in remaining ingredients. Form a loaf on rack in shallow pan.

Bake 375 F. oven 1/2 hour.

6 servings
135 calories per serving

Heart Book


  1. This so similar to my grandma’s recipe, only she tosses some pram and whatever fresh veggies she has in as well. (Finely grated so as to trick young palettes that might think veggies are gross.) I haven’t made it in years, but I think I’ll try it next week. Thanks!

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