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On Top of Spaghetti: A Few Facts About Meatballs

Meatballs anyone? Most people love 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 green peppers (the long ones). Whether they’re fresh from the pot, or simply gracing a heap of spaghetti, nothing beats a meatball.

Here’s an amazing 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 true origin of the meatball but in an 2003 article entitled “Ask 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 idea. 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!”

The “Christopher Columbus” question about meatballs is… Why are meatballs round?

The answer: Meatballs aren’t always round. In Italy the meatball is called polpette and they are oval. Polpette are also often served out of tomato sauce.

Actually, if meatballs were flat, they’d be hamburgers and they’d break in tomato sauce. Hand size is also a factor. Big hand, big 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 true. 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 attached to it: Many recall sleeping in on Sunday morning and waking to the most delicious smell and sound in the world – 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 meat. The ancient Roman cook-book author Apicius included many meat ball-type recipes:

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o Albanian fried meatballs include feta cheese.

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

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

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

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

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

o In Norway, meatballs are called kjoslashttkaker (“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.

o Swedish (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)

o Turkish cuisine features more than 80 types of meatballs (koumlfte), 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 beautiful moss.

It grew great big meatballs and tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti all covered with cheese,

Hold on to your meatball and don’t ever sneeze.

One last thing… 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!”

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