Meatballs: History with Flavor

As I’m writing this, I am transported back to the comforting scent of meatballs slowly simmering in a pot of homemade tomato sauce, becoming more tender and juicy with a sauce that seeps into the crevasses within the meat…dripping into the center to excite each and every bite.

Meatballs that almost instantly melt in your mouth.  The meat is impossibly tender with a texture that verges on downy. Start to chew and they open up, rich and bright at the same time, the dark sweetness of the meat punched up with parmesan and fresh parsley.  The ingredients are fairly standard: eggs, parmesan, milk, parsley, fresh breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, garlic, and equal parts pork and beef, all resulting in a remarkably balanced, well-seasoned meatball. Now all you need is a lightly sea salted side of perfectly cooked seasonal vegetables and a nice Italian Montepulciano or Barbera to accompany!

I was surprised to learn, however, that the meatball is not Italian in origin. The most likely candidate for the original meatball seems to be kofta, a dish of minced or ground beef, chicken, pork, or lamb, mixed with rice, bulgur, or mashed lentils. The kofta most likely traveled from the Arab world along trade routes to Greece, North Africa, and Spain ending up in Italian cuisine.  Nearly every major culture has its own version of the meatball: Spanish albondigas, Dutch bitterballen, Chinese lion’s heads, South African skilpedjies. Kofte, too, is cooked everywhere from India to Morocco.

The meatball itself is a fusion of meat, spice and some form of a binder (what holds the meat together).  In America, meatballs are often known as big balls of seasoned meat dropped in pasta and simmered in tomato sauce – fashioned in our history for convenience, cost, and immigrant culture.  It’s also a food that fits in nicely with the modern American lifestyle, with its emphasis on speed and convenience. Regardless of their true origin, the meatball served in most American Italian restaurants are from an immigrant’s creation, much like most American cuisine—a blend of something old and something new.

Bottom line, eating whole foods is delicious when you educate yourself.


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