In Defense of the Meatloaf Sandwich: The Real Representation of Hoosier Food

Thrillist illustrations, meatloaf sandwich
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The pork tenderloin sandwich is not a very good sandwich. Let me explain...

Like all fried meat wedged between bread, this sandwich has a great opportunity to be delicious with the right curation of pickles, veggies, and condiments. But it doesn't do that: the original is just a big, bland pad of greasy pork, and the “traditional” version comes with mere lettuce, tomato, and mayo. The fact that it sticks out of the bun like some sort of head-on view of a planet with multiple craters isn't exactly a selling point, either. Honestly, no one should have to hold their sandwich by the damn meat. It makes us look like animals. Rubes. Yet for some reason, the pork tenderloin has become "our" sandwich in the state of Indiana. To me, the pork tenderloin sandwich claims its Hoosier status in the same way any drunk Meghan or Sean non-Irish-last-name claims Irish heritage on St. Paddy’s Day. Therefore, I say that the pork tenderloin sandwich is nothing more than a bad schnitzel with oilier breading -- sitting on a bread stand and wearing a jaunty bread hat. It’s inconvenient, it’s heavy, and it either makes you feel like a quitter (because, even after you take 20 bites, you still have a huge sandwich left over), or like Jabba the Hutt, with no emotional stopping point in between.

And so I move that, instead of the godforsaken dumpster fire that is the tenderloin, the official meat-and-bread foodstuff of the great Hoosier state should be the one, the only, meatloaf sandwich.

If you grew up in Indiana, your parents probably either moved here, or stayed to provide you with an economically stable place to grow up (and thanks be to them). But that also means you’ve eaten a few meatloafs in your day, whether you’re the child of some blue bloods, or blue collar workers. Why? Because we love meatloaf.

And we should. It's great.

It should be as individual and handmade as Hoosiers are, not wide and flavorless like people accuse us of being.

Sure, meatloaf is not just a Midwestern thing: recipes exist across all cultures, from South African bobotie to Italian meatballs to Filipino embutido. (But if embutido is meatloaf, then so is the Scotch egg, and so is every fancy terrine that’s ever come out of any white-and-stainless kitchen.) Ethnically diverse 'loafs aside, the meal is universally delicious, leaves endless room for customization, and holds a deep, deep capacity for cross-cultural culinary mashups. It's a food of love and understanding. But the tenderloin? Well, that just aims to house all of us -- immigrants, artists, farmers, teachers, mechanics -- under the same umbrella of wide-mouthed blandness.

Meatloaf, on the other hand, is a celebration of individuality, identity, and invention.

meatloaf sandwich, meatloaf

You see, here in Indiana, everyone’s mother had her signature recipe, and it was employed for decades as the universal measuring stick by which all potential Midwestern housewives were judged. But now is the time for it to be the measuring stick by which all sandwich shops, restaurants, and diners in the state of Indiana should be measured, too.

OK, let's get into the nitty gritty of this debate. There's little chance for error with meatloaf -- so long as you get a fatty enough grind, plenty of salt, and fresh onions. You can even get really lazy with it and pour in a spice mix and still pull off a totally decent ‘loaf. Grinding up undesirable animal parts, mixing them with spices & crumbs, and serving them in a cohesive lump is a guaranteed way to make even the grisliest cuts taste pretty good. The quality of the tenderloin, however, depends on the scruples of the person buying the meat. It's then pounded out so damn thin, and fried so friggin' hot, that even the best-quality pork is bludgeoned and scorched into mediocrity.

The meatloaf sandwich owns up to the fact that it’s made of, basically, ground meat. But it’s damn proud of that, so it gets all dressed up with an egg, spices, breadcrumbs, and a drizzle of fancy Hoosier-made Red Gold ketchup. Meatloaf doesn’t just shrug into a lazy robe of breading like some other sandwiches I know (lookin' at you, Indiana's "fave"); it smooths its hair, wears nice shoes, and always picks you up right on time at hungry o’clock.

You can put jalapeños in meatloaf. You can put fish sauce in meatloaf. You can make a meatloaf out of turkey or lamb or chicken or pork (with enough binders). You can even make vegan meatloaf out of beans and mushrooms. You can make it kosher. You can make it halal. Hell, you can slice off a piece of meatloaf, dunk it in Sloppy Joe sauce, and have your Joe sans the Sloppy.
Meatloaf is just here to help you out like that.

Bad tenderloin, even with good toppings, tastes like a hot macramé shoe moments after it sheds its hippie.

On top of the unique flavor of every recipe, there's a world of toppings to be added. Mathematically, one's mind reels at all the different varieties of meatloaf sandwiches one could eat in an entire lifetime. A simple ensemble of lettuce, tomato, and mayo could act as a nice backdrop for an intensely flavored 'loaf, sure, but why not add some melted gruyere, a bright slaw, and maybe a delicate blanket of baby spinach? Of course, it doesn’t have to be all melted cheese and beef (though even that's still quite delicious); mix up a tasty turkey meatloaf and dress it with kale, and, hey presto! Look who just owned the shit out of everyone else in the "good moms eat well" message board... you did, because good moms choose meatloaf, even if it's turkey.

meatloaf sandwich on toasted ciabatta

But the heart of it all remains the same: cheap ground proteins, binders, and spices baked, sliced, and laid on a carbohydrate-filled cushion. Just like how people become more interesting as you learn more about them, the addition of bread and toppings only serves to make some already great thing all the more interesting. On the other hand, bad tenderloin, even with good toppings, tastes like a hot macramé shoe moments after it sheds its hippie.

For my money, the meatloaf’s best application is purely a functional one: a slice of it actually fits on the goddamn bread! You don’t have to touch it as you’re eating it -- unlike you, pork tenderloin -- and you’re not left patiently anticipating any other flavor or texture besides fried pork for five to 10 bites. As I see it, bread should act as a kind of edible vehicle or capsule that escorts the sandwich's already wonderful ingredients into your mouth.

It’s not the purpose of the journey, certainly, but "first class" sandwich ingredients can definitely be ruined by "coach" bread.

The objective of a sandwich is to get a perfect ratio of bread to meat & toppings, not a cartoonishly undersized foil to your fried pork meat monster. It’s a matter of harmony. By the time you’re done gnawing through the outer orbit of pork on a tenderloin and finally get your teeth on some bread and lettuce, you’re full and tired and you feel like a fool.

For the pork tenderloin sandwich to taste good, it has to be about 60 seconds out of the fryer and dressed with fresh-cut veggies. Seriously, try to eat it reheated, or, God forbid, cold out of the fridge. Both will reveal your "precious" tenderloin as tasting like, and having the texture of, some sort of damp, fart-saturated barstool cushion. Meatloaf, on the other hand, has to be severely abused in order to come out of the oven or microwave dry. As long as you’re using meatloaf no older than a couple of days, that business is going to be delicious and juicy.

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.

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.