This is a tale of two mothers' meatloaves.

One meatloaf was born on a chicken bone of an island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, its recipe cobbled by Canadian ex-pats. The origin of the other remains locked in the brain of an elderly woman in Toledo, Ohio. Both meatloaves, however, share the secret of the perfect meatloaf.

That secret is ...

Oats.

"When I was growing up in Toledo, my mother used oatmeal and Ritz Crackers as the filler," said Cynthia Kallile, who owns The Meatloaf Bakery in Chicago. "I use it, too, and it's a great idea — keeps the meat very moist."

Kallile could be actress Tina Fey's sister. From a distance, if you catch her darting around behind the windows of her shop, which sells meatloaf and only meatloaf, you can see the resemblance. You can hear it, too. Ask her about the specifics of her mother's meatloaf, which she bakes in cupcake tins and sells as "The Mother Loaf." She will stammer as though she just heard "30 Rock" was hiring understudies:

"Well, I had to talk to my mother when I was getting ready for (the bakery), and I said, 'Mom, how do you make your meatloaf?' and she said, 'I just make it,' and I said, 'But how?'

"It was hard pulling it out of her. She said, 'A little bit of this, a little bit of that,' and I said, 'How much is a little?' and she said, 'I don't know. I just make it. With Worcestershire sauce.' And I said, 'OK, how much Worcestershire?' and she said, 'Some Worcestershire.'

"That's how we make meatloaf in my family, by instinct. But that's why I love meatloaf," said Kallile, who gave up a career as a marketing executive to open the bakery. "It's a license to be creative, and people don't take advantage of that."

Still, creativity aside, there are practical things you can learn about making meatloaf that will help. For instance, trust in your own frugality.

Which brings us to that other perfect meatloaf. It can be found on Nantucket, where it is lost on the summer residents and overlooked by tourists who jam the cobblestone streets from June to Labor Day.

But among locals, it is legend and can be found at a shack called Claudette's on the east rim of the island. It also is a fine example of how meatloaf need not be for winter.

It's served cold.

John Pearl's mother opened the lunch stand in the 1960s, when Nantucket was "beat up like you wouldn't believe," he said. His mother, Claudette, was French Canadian. She moved to the island from Quebec. "We never had much, ate lots of cod. But she brought with her a meatloaf recipe from a Quaker Oats ad. She changed it. We always wanted it."

Her meat was cheap, too. Decades later, Pearl runs Claudette's and said he still does not use the most expensive ground beef: "We're going to pour off the grease anyway."

But again, his mother's secret was an oat filler, which is what Pearl continues to use. Then, because it's served cold (refrigerated for 24 hours before slicing), he brightens it with a dash of Bloody Mary mix.

Meatloaf, in other words, is quintessential improvisation. "And certainly an American tradition," said Melanie Barnard, a food writer best known for her "30 Minutes or Less" columns in Bon Appetit and the author of "Everybody Loves Meatloaf." The roots may be in Europe, she said, "but we have made it our own."

Nothing but the meat

Kallile's Mother Loaf begins with a high-grade ground chuck, which is combined with veal and pork. "Some people have issues with veal," she said. But when asked for a substitute, she suggested none at all — leave it out.

The filler

This stretches your meat, fluffs the loaf. Depending on what corner of the country you hail from, this gets personal. Cornbread is big in the South; oats are a distinctly New England thing, but Midwesterners would disagree. There's also Stove Top Stuffing; croutons; corn flakes. Barnard said her mother, Pennsylvania Dutch, with a Sicilian husband, used crusty Italian bread.

Throw it in

"What doesn't work in meatloaf are watery vegetables," Barnard said. "Use vegetables but only ones that are dry. Everything else, use." Onions, peppers, mushrooms.

Here's where your invention will be crucial. Kallile said that in the months leading up to her opening, she rarely cooked a meatloaf that wasn't edible. She cooked with a nephew and they started with pork but had an itch for green olives, so those went into the mix, as did almonds, sherry, chorizo. It became her El Loafo Del Fuego.

In other words, the glory of meatloaf is lost on the timid.

To bind your loaf, egg is standard, but meatloaf experts also suggest keeping the meat moist. Applesauce works, as does V8, ketchup, molasses, salsa, barbecue sauce, sour cream and Worcestershire sauce.

Shaping your loaf

Kallile got the idea for cupcake shapes from her mother. After she moved to Chicago from Ohio in 1986, her mother would bring her miniature loaves to freeze and eat later. Barnard occasionally shapes her loaf into an enormous ball (flat on bottom) and calls it the Giant Meatball. The airplane-hangar shape, however, remains traditional.

One key to good meatloaf, Pearl said, is using your hands — for five minutes. Do not use a spoon. And don't pat it down hard. Leave it as light as possible to avoid an overly dense loaf.

The right pan

Bread pans are popular. But Pearl suggests a sheet pan, as does Barnard: "A pan with high sides steams the meat, and you don't get the crust along the side that you could get with a sheet pan." Make sure the pan is big enough so that the loaf is about 2 inches from the edge. This allows air to circulate and a crust to form.

The big lift

To avoid the dreaded crumble, Kallile lets the meatloaf sit a few minutes after baking; she also suggests using a bed of parchment paper beneath the loaf. That said, some meatloaf makers swear by the bacon method: Line the bottom in bacon strips. It may not give you the sturdiest of lifts, but it's an easy way to add some smoke to the meat.

How long?

Forty-five minutes to an hour is standard. But Pearl said: "If you don't want a saturated, greasy meatloaf, 15 minutes before taking it out, drain off the oil at the bottom of the pan."

To sauce or to glaze?

Many meatloaf connoisseurs prefer no sauce. But Barnard said a strongly seasoned loaf, with a glaze, is often plenty. She suggests a bit of ketchup and molasses. She suggests glazing the loaf once at the start, once again at the midway point, then at the end.

"When it works, you get a crunch a lot of meatloaves never see."

Mother's Meatloaf

Makes: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 cup each: breadcrumbs, rolled oats

2/3 cup milk

2 eggs slightly beaten

1/3 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons each: barbecue sauce, finely chopped garlic cloves, finely chopped chives

1 teaspoon each: herbes de Provence, paprika, sea salt, ground pepper

1 pound each: ground chuck, ground pork

1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper

2/3 cup finely chopped parsley

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch loaf pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment paper; spray again. Combine breadcrumbs, oats and milk; let soften.

Beat 2 eggs slightly in medium bowl; add ketchup, Worcestershire, barbecue sauce, garlic, chives, herbes de Provence, paprika, salt and pepper. Mix chuck, pork, onions, red pepper and parsley by hand; add bread and oatmeal mixture. Add egg mixture; mix lightly by hand. Put mixture in pan; lightly pat down. Bake until browned and meat thermometer reads 165 degrees, about 1 hour. Let rest 15 minutes; slice.

Per serving: 377 calories, 44 percent of calories from fat, 18g fat, 6g saturated fat, 127mg cholesterol, 26g carbohydrates, 27g protein, 619mg sodium, 3g fiber.

This is a slight variation of The Meatloaf Bakery's signature Mother Loaf, itself a slight variation of owner Cynthia Kallile's mother's meatloaf. The recipe can be served without topping. But Kallile prefers a "liberal glaze" of 1/3 cup ketchup and 1/3 cup barbecue sauce spread over the loaf 15 minutes before removing from the oven.