Quick Recipes and Easy

On Top of Spaghetti: A Few Facts About Meatballs

Meatballs anyone? Most people like em!

It’s the traditional start to the Sunday dinner in most Italian families, served warm with fresh mozzarella cheese, crisp italian bread and fried hot peppers. Whether they are fresh from the pot, or simply gracing a heap of spaghetti, nothing beats a meatball!

Here’s an incredible fact about making meatballs: Give ten people the same basic recipe and each batch will turn out differently. Go figure…

No one really knows the right origin of the meatball but in an 2003 article entitled “Question the Chef” John Piso describes it this way:

“Meatballs originated in some Italian’s kitchen when she found that she had some ground beef left over. Hamburger meat was popularized at the turn of the last century, so it makes sense to assume that meatballs started then, as did meat loaf. I could just see some nice Italian housewife ready to make a tomato sauce and find some left over ground meat in her ice-a -box-a. Always having eggs, parsley, garlic, cheese, and hard bread around, she must have felt a surge of lightning that hit her with this thought. Ground meat, garlic, cheese, breadcrumbs, parsley, and some beaten egg to hold it all together. Fry it in oil; drop it in the sauce and Bingo! Two courses in one pot – pure genius!”

Then comes what I call the “Christopher Columbus” question about meatballs…Why are meatballs round? Because it’s a meat-ball, silly. Really, if meatballs were flat, they’d break apart when stirred in tomato sauce. Hand size is also a factor. Huge hand, huge meatball, small hand, small meatball.

Wikipedia, The Free Online Encyclopedia, describes a meatball as “a generally spherical mass of minced meat and other ingredients, such as bread or breadcrumbs, minced onion, various spices or eggs, usually fried in a pan or baked in an oven. Except for shape and size (there’s usually more than one meatball per serving), meatballs are very similar to meatloaf.”

That may be half right. A meatball is only similar to a meatloaf because of the ingredients that cement it togther. The meatloaf is a traditional American dish, made in a loaf form, sometimes stuffed, sliced and covered in brown gravy. A meatball is the stuff that dreams are made of because there’s a nostagia factor here: I recall sleeping in on a Sunday morning and waking to the most tasty smell in the world, then entering the kitchen and hearing that sweet sound of meatballs sizzling in a frying pan….it’s always so hard to resist grabbing one. Can’t get that feeling from a meatloaf!

Is a meatball by any other name still a meatball? The answer is Yes, because one ingredient remains constant: Ground Beef. The ancient Roman cook-book author Apicius included many meat ball-type recipes:

• Albanian fried meatballs (Qofte të fërguara) include feta cheese.

• Danish meatballs are known as frikadeller and are typically fried, and they are usually made from pork.

• In Germany, meatballs are called Frikadellen (in the North) or Buletten (in the East) or Fleischpflanzerl or Fleischküchle if you happen to be in the South

• In Greece, meatballs are called ‘keftedes’ and usually include within the mix onions and mint leaf.

• In Italy, meatballs are know as polpette. Outside of Italy, they are commonly served with spaghetti as in “spaghetti and meatballs”.

• The Japanese hamburger steak hanbagu is based on similar ingredients.

• In Norway, meatballs are called kjøttkaker (“meat cakes”) and resemble Danish frikadeller, but they are usually made from ground beef. The dish is traditionally served with boiled potatoes, gravy, lingonberry jam and/or stewed green peas. Some people also like to add fried/caramelized onion on the side.

• Swedish köttbullar (Swedish meatballs) are made with ground beef or a mix of ground beef and pork, mixed with breadcrumbs soaked in milk and finely chopped onions. They are seasoned with white pepper and salt. Swedish meatballs are traditionally served with gravy, boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam, and fresh pickled cucumber. (In the television show Babylon 5 all alien races have swedish meatballs, although with different names)

• Turkish cuisine features more than 80 types of meatballs (köfte), most being regionally made.

The meatball is so well loved that we even sing about it. Check out the American classic “On top of Spaghetti” by Tom Glazer which features a wayward meatball. For decades he had a chorus of children singing lines like:

On top of spaghetti all covered with cheese.
I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed.

It rolled off the table, it rolled on the floor,
And then my poor meatball rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden and under a bush,
And then my poor meatball was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty as tasty could be,
And early next summer it grew to a tree.

The tree was all covered with gorgeous moss.
It grew fantastic huge meatballs and tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti all covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball and don’t ever sneeze.

Now that I’ve told you all these wonderful facts about the Meatball, here’s some friendly advice: It isn’t very nice to call someone a “Meatball”. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines calling someone a meatball the same as calling them dull or stupid. So if you must use mention of food in your name-calling endeavors, I’d suggest you call ‘em a “Meatloaf!”

Nancy S. Mure is the Bestselling Author of The Caterpillar that Wouldn’t Change and Massimo’s Meatballs. nancysmure.com nancysmure.com

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