I know what you’re thinking: why not the hamburger? Isn’t a hamburger basically the same as a meatloaf sandwich? Well, no. Let me tell you why you’re dead wrong.
For one, because the hamburger is a food we all share with America herself; we cannot claim it as our own. The hamburger doesn’t require the love of home cooking that meatloaf does. If you form a ball of 80/20 into a round disk and grill it, that’s a burger (albeit a bland one). If you form a pile of ground beef into a mound in a casserole dish and bake it low & slow into a crumbly mess, you just have a hot beef pile that probably (definitely) tastes like, you guessed it, a weird-looking burger. So, as wondrous as one may be, we can't just make the judgment that it is at all equal to the meatloaf sandwich.
I mean, there's the process...
Both cooks, and those lucky enough to have good cooks at home, know that creating the perfect meatloaf is all about getting your hands dirty -- specifically, caked with egg yolk, beef fat, and onions -- as you mix the meatloaf with the only pair of tools that really work on the mushy hillock. You lovingly pat it into shape, press a little trough into the middle, decorate it with ketchup (crosshatch, or don’t come at all) and a little extra salt & pepper, and place it in a hot oven to gently firm up.
But not the tenderloin, no. It is a carb-coated vehicle for the most psychologically threadbare line cook’s rage. Making one at home is signing up for a floury, oily mess that ends in floppy failure -- unless you’re the kind of one-person party who already owns a FryDaddy. The tenderloin is the invention of a long-dead carnival huckster who used good and innocent pork to fool Hoosiers into thinking they were getting more sandwich than they really were. They took the spirit of Hoosier hoops -- scoring points by making round things go to into raised holes -- and used it to get us to make bets against ourselves that we couldn't finish the whole thing. With the tenderloin, even when you win, you lose.
Meatloaf is an act of honesty and love. Tenderloin is an act of tasteless gluttony.
It's not about which one is more historical, nor is it a matter of rich or poor; these are both cheap, fairly easy, and available whether you’re shopping at Aldi or Whole Foods. But if we’re going to have a representational sandwich, it should be made of something pretty much all Hoosiers grew up with in their home kitchens, not something that you need a deep fat fryer to do well. It should be a food that tastes good whether you’re sharing it around a table with friends, or hunched over your desk in the middle of your work day. It should be as individual and handmade as Hoosiers are, not wide and flavorless like people accuse us of being. If you don’t know what I mean, try the meatloaf sandwich at Brugge, then the meatloaf melt at Pure, then Red Lion, then Kountry Kitchen, and so on.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I don't know what it is about Hoosiers. But wherever you go, there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there." We hold him up as a favorite son because he was smart, he believed in hard work, and he had an endless number of facets to his personality -- none of which bobbed to the surface by any force of egotism. And while I generally believe it’s dangerous to project my own intentions into the minds of my deities, I do believe that Vonnegut would have exalted the personality and pragmatism of the meatloaf sandwich if he were forced to choose. If a sandwich is going represent us, it shouldn’t be the sandwich that stirs only the urge to take another lap around the fairway and then head home for a nap. The state sandwich of Indiana should be one you enjoy while you’re building something, when you need a hand to finish your work, or when you're grabbing the beer you damn well earned. It’s the only food that crosses all cultural chasms and says "Welcome to Indiana." It's the humble, local, mom-and-pop... meatloaf sandwich.
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Sarah Murrell is a Thrillist contributor and a Midwest food writer based in Indianapolis. Follow her on Twitter to see a life lived one slice of meatloaf at a time.