Meatballs originated on Earth. That’s about as close as we could get to narrowing down the point of origin for the ubiquitous comfort food, and even that may be inaccurate. We all know, when we boldly go where no gourmet grandmother in a sauce-stained apron has gone before, our first contact with a strange, alien race includes 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 some mixture of herbs and meats. Before the kitchen grinder was invented, cooks shredded and pounded the meat before forming them into chunks.
And while nations prize their own concept of the dish, the meatball crosses all boundaries, happily trading traditions and ingredients so that no cook could predict a native version of the meatball truly unique to a specific culture. That’s part of the meatball’s allure.
Why did the meatball appear independently in so many kitchens and cooking fires of early civilizations? Speculation focuses on the character of the meat and meat’s lack in early times.
Because meat was scarce, mixing it with starches and vegetables allowed the meatball to gain mass, feeding more people.
Storing meat over a long period makes it tough. Mixing it with additives, soft and vinegar foodstuffs such as bread produces a tender meatball.
Leftover scraps of meat makes an economical meal at the meatloaf, with no waste of resources. The meatball, after all, is just bite-sized parts of meatloaf.
Traditions and recipes for meatballs vary, depending on the region. For Albanians, it’s a mixture of feta cheese with the meat. In Mexico, they use the same name as in Spain for meatballs, but the Mexicans serve their albóndigas in a soup, generally a light broth with veggies. The Poles like giant meatballs, called golabki (No, it is not pronounced as it seems ), wrapped and baked in steamed cabbage leaves. Turkey enjoys meatballs, boasting over 80 variations of it, each slightly different based on the region.
Italians know meatballs as polpette. Made from beef or veal, the components of polpette can 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 prevent masking the flavor. What Americans think of as a traditional mainstay of Italian cuisine, spaghetti and meatballs, is virtually unknown in Italy.
That is not to say spaghetti and meatballs isn’t an Italian tradition. It’s just that the dish is a culinary heritage created by Italian immigrants to America.
The wave of Italian immigration to America that started near the end of the 19th century eventually was the force for making pasta a staple of the middle class in the U.S., though it took time. Harvey Levenstein and Joseph Conlin, both professors of history who investigated the food Italian immigrates ate in this country, found that social workers and nutritionists under the influence of a new field at the time, food science, were aghast at the immigrants’ diet of pasta, hard cheese, vegetable, fruit and garlic. These would-be nutritional reformers declared that many fruits and vegetables, particularly green vegetables, had little nutritional value and cost too much.
Yet the immigrants did find that the nutritionists were right about one thing; vegetables and fruits at the time cost too much. Meat was cheap and plentiful in the U.S., but at least by what they were used to in the”old country.”
The seasonings the immigrants used were conventional 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 began with a base of Campanain food, but without plenty of vegetables and cheeses.
Levenstein and Conlin indicate the joining of meatballs with pasta and tomato sauce had its origins in several baked Neapolitan pasta dishes served at religious festivals. However, the meatballs in these earlier dishes were the size of walnuts or less.
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 tradition in the U.S. which was adopted across the American population.