That’s about as close as we can get to narrowing down the point of origin for the omnipresent comfort food, and even that may be inaccurate. For all we know, when we boldly go where no gourmet grandmother in a sauce-stained apron has gone before, our initial contact with a strange, alien race will include a confrontation with the familiar yet always interesting and tasty universal joy, the meatball.
They could be made with beef, veal, pork, lamb, fowl, fish, or any mixture of meats and herbs. Before the kitchen grinder was invented, cooks shredded and pounded the meat before forming them into balls.
And while countries prize their own concept of the dish, the meatball crosses all borders, happily trading traditions and ingredients so that no cook can call a native version of the meatball truly unique to a specific culture. That’s part of the meatball’s charm.
Why did the meatball appear independently in a lot of kitchens and cooking fires of early civilizations? Speculation focuses on the nature of the meat and meat’s lack in ancient times.
Because meat was scarce, mixing it with starches and vegetables allowed the meatball to gain mass, feeding more people.
Storing meat over an extended period makes it tough. Mixing it with salts, vinegar and soft foodstuffs such as bread creates a tender meatball.
Leftover bits of meat makes an economical meal at the meatloaf, with no waste of resources. The meatball, after all, is only bite-sized portions of meatloaf.
Greeks mix in finely diced onion and mint with the meatballs. For Albanians, it’s a mix of feta cheese with the meat. In Spain, meatballs are called albóndigas. The Spanish serve them as an appetizer or main course in a tomato sauce. In Mexicothey use the identical title as in Spain for meatballs, but the Mexicans serve their albóndigas in a soup, generally a light broth with vegetables. The Poles like giant meatballs, called golabki (No, it’s not pronounced as it seems ), wrapped and baked in steamed cabbage leaves. Turkey enjoys meatballs, boasting more than 80 variations of it, each slightly different based on the region.
Italians know meatballs as polpette. Made of beef or veal, the ingredients of polpette may also include Paarmigiano, mortadella or even béchamel sauce. Italian meatballs are modest, and in most areas of Italy, polpette is fried and served as an appetizer without sauce or topping to avoid masking the taste.
That’s not to mention spaghetti and meatballs isn’t an Italian tradition. It’s just that the dish is a culinary tradition created by Italian immigrants to America.
The wave of Italian immigration to America that began near the end of the 19th century eventually was the force for making pasta a staple of the middle class in the U.S., although it took time. These prospective nutritional reformers declared that many fruits and vegetables, especially green vegetables, had little nutritional value and cost too much.
The Italian immigrants generally tried to dismiss the information, growing and canning their own fruits and vegetables as much as they could. Nevertheless the immigrants did find that the nutritionists were right about one thing; fruits and vegetables in the time cost too much. Meat was cheap and plentiful in the U.S., but at least by what they had been used to in the”old country.”
The seasonings the immigrants used were traditional ones from the Campania region of Italy, primarily because Campanians early on established themselves as grocers in the U.S., making tomato paste, oregano and garlic easier to find than typical seasonings of different regions. Because of this, Italian-American cuisine started with a base of Campanain food, but without an abundance of vegetables and cheeses.
Levenstein and Conlin indicate the joining of meatballs with pasta and tomato sauce had its origins in a number of baked Neapolitan pasta dishes served in religious festivals. But the meatballs in those earlier dishes were the size of walnuts or less. The immigrants enlarged the meatballs, much to the delight of American diners.
Diners also became accustomed to the use of garlic, oregano and hot pepper flakes in their spaghetti and meatballs, giving birth to a brand new Italian heritage in the U.S. that was adopted across the American population.