I never realized it, but meatballs have a strong foothold in pop culture. In my mind, it starts with the song “On Top of Spaghetti.” That’s when a meatball decides to roll off the table and out the front door. This song delighted me as a youth and I think I played it over and over again on our record player (it was part of some silly song compilation LP we had like Goofy Greats). I can still sing it today. Then, in 1979, a movie called Meatballs was released starring Bill Murray as a summer camp counselor. I don’t recall any direct reference to meatballs in the movie outside of the theme song, but I think the term is a reference to describe the ragtag group of counselors and campers at Camp Northstar. That is one of my all-time favorite movies and Bill Murray’s rally-the-troops speech (“It just doesn’t matter!”) should be part of any rallying montage. The movie is actually sweet as a young outsider finds his place in this oddball refuge. Still, I remember it for the funny scenes of Spaz winning the cup-balance race and Morty drifting across the lake asleep in his bed. A true classic. More recently in 2009, meatballs returned to the big screen in the animated film Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. That was based on a classic children’s book. I have never read the book or seen the movie, but I hear great things. Even the thought of meatballs dropping from the sky is intriguing and fun. I’m sure that in years to come, this movie will stand out with the youth of today as the iconic meatball reference.
All that has no bearing on this holiday, National Meatball Day, but it’s what popped in my head when I started thinking about meatballs. I suppose their pop culture success comes from what meatballs our to us. First, they are delicious. Seasoned ground meat packed into little balls and cooked to perfection. Second, they are a fun food. They’re round, they’re the perfect size and they even have a fun name. Memorable food is always fun and probably why it pops up in the world of pop culture. I’d like to say that growing up I had a nice little Italian grandmother or Nonni who would spend all day on Sunday making her special meatballs for the big family dinner, but I can’t. I had a nice Irish grandmother who was usually baking me cookies. My mom would make the meatballs in our house, and I must admit, she did a good job. She would bake them and I can remember always wanting one after they came out of the oven. I don’t think they were particularly seasoned or if she had a secret recipe, but they were always good and made me look forward to a spaghetti and meatball night. Sometimes she would make me a meatball sandwich for lunch too. That was always a good day when I would open up my brown paper bag at the cafeteria lunch table and found a meatball sandwich on white bread inside.
Lola’s mom was kind of famous in these parts for her meatballs. She had a very specific recipe (which has been preserved in our special recipe box). Her recipe called for three pounds of meat and I’m sure if the occasion called for it, she would double it. She was used to feeding a whole tribe – not just the family but the extended family too or anyone else who just happened to show up. She had a whole process to her meatball making. She would make them at the kitchen table, sitting in her chair at the end of table. Part of her secret was grating the onion into the recipe. That gave you great onion taste (pardon the pun), but ensure there wouldn’t be any chunks of onions in the meatball. She would say to keep some hot water near by while you are rolling the balls and to keep your hands moistened with the water so it wouldn’t get all sticky. She would also tell you not to pack them too tight – you want them to be held together, but not too dense. Making the perfect meatball was a skill she possessed. When it came time to cook the meatballs, she would fry them in some olive oil on the stovetop. This is not an easy process. You have to keep your eye on them so not to burn them, plus you have to be careful with the hot oil. She’d stand there and watch them cook, flipping them at the perfect time, and then eventually removing them from the pan and draining them on a paper towel. This is when she would also make her tomato sauce too, so once her sauce was all assembled and simmering, she would drop the meatballs into the sauce and the two would simmer along together, both absorbing flavors from the other. Spaghetti and meatball night was always a day to look forward to at the Mellow house.
The best part about being around when Gigi was making meatballs was that she would give you one that had just been cooked. I can recall sitting in the living room watching some movie or show while Gigi was in the kitchen cooking away. The whole house would be full of this delightful smell of cooking meatballs and your mouth would start to salivate involuntarily. You’d lose focus on what you were watching and all you could think of was meatballs. Then, like magic, Gigi would come through the living room doorway with a meatball wrapped inside a paper towel for us to try. It was like winning the lottery. You’d nibble away at this warm and delicious treat which would tide you over until dinner. Gigi knew things like this.
I had actually made Gigi’s meatballs last week, just randomly looking for something to make for dinner. I made them with some spaghetti, although I used jarred Prego sauce opting to not make my own (don’t judge). I have made meatballs before and even used Gigi’s recipe, but last week’s batch was the first time I had made them where Lola was truly impressed. She said I was pretty close to the real deal. That’s truly a compliment because to Lola, her mom’s meatballs are the top of the line. In any case, I made them and we had spaghetti and meatballs for about four or five meals last week. I didn’t realize National Meatball Day was coming up otherwise I would have held off. In any case, knowing that today was the holiday, I gave Lola the choice of how she would like meatballs. I said I could go the spaghetti and meatball route again, I could make the meatballs and we could have some meatball subs, we could order meatball subs from the local pizza places or I could venture out and make a new kind of meatball (I had found a recipe for the famous Ikea meatballs that I was going to try to make). The Swedish meatball idea got me an immediate no. She wanted no part of meatballs that weren’t served in tomato sauce. (She did ask if the meatballs Jeff had made at Christmas were Swedish meatballs because those were delicious. They weren’t, they were bacon meatballs in a bourbon barbecue sauce and were indeed delicious. I don’t think Lola knows exactly what a Swedish meatball is). We had both had our fill on the spaghetti front after last week, so it really came down to meatball subs. I decided I would make our own.
After getting some ground beef at Clements, I came home and started making the meatballs. I used the Gigi recipe, although I did add in a few more seasonings just because we like things a little more seasoned. That just meant I added in fresh garlic, some oregano and some garlic powder (we’re garlic fans). I also did not grate the onion. Sorry Gigi, I just find tossing it into the food processor gets it done quicker. I did make sure I used 4C brand parmesan cheese, a Gigi endorsed product. In fact Lola insists on that kind of cheese to make it properly. One time I bought some parmesan cheese from the dollar store up the street and she accused me of using government cheese. She can be particular. The meatballs came together nicely and I kept my warm water nearby to keep my hands moist. I put a frying pan on the stove and filled the bottom with some olive oil (Bertolli’s – another Gigi approved brand). Then I got to frying, keeping a close watch on the balls while they cooked. You have to be careful when you are flipping the balls. They will stick to the bottom of the pan, so you have to use a fine-edged spatula and kind chisel underneath when it’s time to flip them. But you have to be gentle too, otherwise they come apart. It’s a skill, but it gets easier the more you do it. These came out looking pretty great.
Then it was time to make the sub, a challenge I was up for as a sandwich artist. I had bought two fresh grinder rolls from Clements, so I had the right bread choice. I put some sauce (again using jarred Prego) into a sauce pan and heated it up along with some meatballs. Meanwhile I cut the rolls open lengthwise and put a layer of cheese at the bottom. I was going to use mozzarella cheese but I found an Italian Blend cheese from Land O’ Lakes at the deli counter that was a mixture of Asiago, Romano and Parmesan with American. I thought that might be nice, so that’s what I was using. I put the meatballs in on top of the cheese along with some extra sauce. Then I topped it all with another slice of cheese. When assembled, I placed the subs under the broiler for another minute or two until the cheese had melted. The subs were done.
As my wife says, these were slammin’. I think I got the meatball right again because they were plenty flavorful, but also nice and moist on the inside with a little crispy crunch on the outside. The cheese was a good selection too because it gave you hint of those Italian cheeses, but also the creaminess of the American cheese which helped it melt across the whole sub. The bread was good and fresh and toasted just a little underneath the broiler. It was as good as any sub we could have gotten at the local pizza places. Best of all, I have about a dozen meatballs leftover so we can keep enjoying them all weekend long.
There are few joys in life like the simple meatball. It has become part of our nation’s table with every family having some sort of version that they look forward to. It’s on the menu in restaurants, in school cafeterias and even at the food court of large Swedish international furniture companies. It’s on our movie screens, our tv screens and in our songs. The meatball is everywhere, all covered in cheese. It was an honor to celebrate it today. It brought me back to a time at the kitchen table of my youth hoping to get one more meatball before my brother took the last one. It reminded me of the kind gesture of a freshly cooked meatball wrapped in a paper towel as a little snack before the feast from a kind woman who had just spent the last hour laboring over the stove. It made me realize that the key ingredient to a really good meatball are love and happy memories. And we sure packed them in today, in every delicious bite.
Next up: National Blueberry Popover day