On Top of Spaghetti

When My sister remarried in 2004, she brought an Irishman to our table full of Italians. He quickly discovered that his favorite Italian food, spaghetti and meatballs, isn’t actually Italian. It is unlikely that a restaurant in Italy would offer this fare, with the exception of tourist traps looking to overcharge for a familiar experience of home. Why is it then, that we associate spaghetti and meatballs with a cultural background that it does not belong to? The stereotypical perceptions we have about other countries and cultures prompt the false assumption that traditional Italian cuisine includes spaghetti and meatballs. Contrary to popular presumption, Spaghetti and Meatballs are, in fact, an American creation based on American hardships.

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, Ellis Island served as the gateway to freedom for many immigrating to America. For Italian immigrants, especially those affected by war, money was hard to come by. In response to poor socio-economic conditions, these immigrants were forced to make do with what was available to them. In other words, they had to make do with what was cheap. Eating Pasta every evening was not uncommon as it was inexpensive and easy to make a lot of. However, the meats brought into the Meatpacking District of New York, by way of the Hudson River, were expensive and only affordable to those who living in the heart of the city; the wealthy. Even those who lived in the slums were subject to high prices of meat. This meat, though, was of lesser quality, leading to the creation of the “meatball.” Although the meatballs were made from scraps, they added density to their meals. The days they cherished were when they were able to put little meatballs on top of their pasta with tomato sauce.  The meal itself became popular among various communities of New York and extended far beyond the Italians by the turn of the 20th century.

1907 Picture of the Meatpacking District of New York. This is the market that would be present on a daily basis.

As America saw an economic boom in the early 1900’s just prior to the Great Depression, things began to appear in excess for the first time; including the use of meatballs. Even though they still weren’t eating the best available meat, it was a substantial increase as to how much meat they ate back in Italy. The serving size of the spaghetti was typically the same, however, we began to see meatballs the size of baseballs appear in meals.  Family dinners at my house include meatballs of this size, not because they are part of the Italian meal, but because they are part of our American tradition as Italian Immigrants.  Whenever my dad went to visit his cousins in Sicily, there was never an American meatball, in sight.  Italians have their own version, but it is not served anywhere close to how Americans do. “Polpettes,” as they are called, are usually served as their own meal or in soups—a severe difference from what we know as the meatball. In fact, they are no larger than the size of a golf ball. Italians laugh at the notion that it is the centerpiece of meals at most Italian restaurants.  Even more so, they find it amazing that, to foreigners, it has become a part of their identity.

This meatball weighed in at roughly 1,110 lbs and holds the crown for the Worlds Largest Meatball

A Sicilian restauranteur by the name of Niccolo de Quattrociocchi visited the United States following the Great Depression.  In his memoirs, it was recorded that he “was introduced to two very fine, traditional American specialties.” One of which was called “Spaghetti with Meatballs,” and he thought that “someone in Italy should invent them for Italians over there.” It was such a new concept to him that he thought it was a joke, or rather in a nature of having fun, that Americans referred to this food as “Italian.”

In 1955, the Disney film “Lady and The Tramp,” introduces an early example of how exaggerated this stereotype has become—in such a short time nonetheless. Set to the tune of Bella Notte, an Italian song meaning “beautiful night,” we see two Super Mario looking characters serve up a dish of Spaghetti with Meatballs.  Shortly after, we are given a line that everybody knows, but not everybody knows where its from: “Mama Mia, that’s a one spicy meatball!” Having originated from an Alka Seltzer commercial that ran in the early 60’s, the commercials’ punchline still runs strong today. Since then, the line has been referenced enough in movies, television and advertisements to a point where it can’t even be thought without assuming an Italian accent. My grandfather, who lost most of his accent by the time I was born, used to say that line whenever he lost at cards or just wanted a chuckle; he was good for that.

The memorable scene where they share a plate of Spaghetti with Meatballs

When my grandfather first came to the United States his family struggled financially.  When they could get veal too cook with the sauce, they would.  However, like his fellow Italians who came a century earlier, they often couldn’t afford such a luxury.  Instead, he would combine beef and pork, something him and his family adopted once here in the States.  My dad grew up the same way, constantly finding ways to incorporate tasty meat, usually to only fall back on meatballs showered in salt and pepper. He would make it work however, mixing in onions, egg, breadcrumbs, and a lot of parmigiana. The combination was deadly enough to serve as its own meal. In the larger meatballs he makes, the amount of meat hides the breadcrumbs; a taste I admire amongst the other ingredients.

Our family has since grown and now includes people from various backgrounds and walks of life.  Shamus, for instance, grew up eating spaghetti with meatballs as an homage to Italians.  My sister-in-law never liked red sauce before she met my family. In turn, the meatball has come to represent more than our Italian-American background, but also so our recent history as people who come from different parts of the globe trying to make ends meet in a new country.  We are a collection of people that came from different families now sitting as one, around spaghetti with meatballs.




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