Friday, February 3, 2012

neither a borrower

Lent is coming up. Lent, of course, will mean giving up meat. Even more of course, the weeks BEFORE Lent mean "oh holy hell, what meat do I need to make sure to eat while I can?"

I'll make a few burgers. I'll fry some chicken. I'll have some pig tails with barbecue sauce. But first I made meatballs and spaghetti.

The fundamental techniques I use to make meatballs are the ones I learned from my mother many years ago, as you likely rely on those you learned from yours: combine ground beef and ground pork (I like to add ground lamb but it's often prohibitively expensive), season, bind with breadcrumbs and egg; brown and simmer in tomato sauce. (There you go, there's your recipe content for this post.) I might do any manner of other things - when I can, I leave the mixed meat in the fridge overnight before browning - I often add buttermilk or Greek yogurt, and for years I always added vermouth - garlic, marjoram, and fennel are frequent seasonings - but the basic technique has not changed. Sometimes I shake some crushed red peppers onto my plate, the way my mother always put on her pizza.

There's a reason this is a dish we so often learn from our parents or grandparents. There is an argument to be made for meatballs and spaghetti as the quintessential American dish, one borne not out of the 17th and 18th centuries when kings were granting land for colonies run by aristocrats who starved because they hadn't brought enough laborers to fish and farm for them, but out of the splash of decades - 1880s to 1920s - that historian Robert Wiebe calls the organizational period, when modern American identity was really formed. The dominance of the Union over its States had been affirmed in an agonizing war and Reconstruction; the political issues driving elections were increasing national in their concern (monetary policy, foreign policy, immigration) rather than regional; national unions, guilds, and professional organizations became common; people begin reading nationally distributed magazines and newspapers from nationally owned chains with nationally syndicated content. Business expands to the national level - Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel. Railroads and the close of the frontier make travel more common - at the same time, urbanization and higher education make Americans more mobile, by untethering their means from a particular parcel of land and making it more likely that they will move away from home to find jobs. This is when people start thinking of themselves as Americans instead of Mainers or Virginians or Hoosiers.

At the same time, the ethnic makeup of the country changes drastically. Italians are lynched, Irish Need Not Apply, Chinese are routinely driven out of town by mobs, and the influx of Catholics and Jews is one of the motivating factors behind the creation of the second, and most successful, Ku Klux Klan. Phase changes take a lot of energy.

This is when cookbooks become really popular, and magazines and newspapers expose readers to new recipes nationwide, instead of just preserving local traditions.

You have a lot of new foods - not just foods from other cuisines, but packaged foods in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, refrigerated foods as the country is electrified (and the ice trade improves even in those areas which lag behind), and ...

Ground beef.

When talking about burgers, I pointed out that the reason hamburgers land where they do in the timeline is because the modern beef industry, or perhaps its immediate precessor, was the child of the railroads, which allowed cattle and cattle carcasses to be transported far enough and fast enough that beef became cheaper and more widely available. Ground beef, especially in the early 20th century, became a much more common product as a result, something that could be sold cheaply because the steaks had already paid for the cow - in some cases it was used in recipes which had traditionally used finely chopped or braised meat (chili con carne, spaghetti with "meat sauce"); in others, new foods emerged.

Meatballs were not quite new, not exactly. But neither were they ever as common in Italy as they became in the United States, especially in this form: golf-ball-sized, red-sauced, spaghettied. We adopted ground beef earlier than other cultures; our cuisine was already in flux because of immigration, technology changes, and population shifts; the Italian-American communities tended to cook more tomato-heavy dishes than their cousins back home did, and perhaps more importantly, non-Italian-Americans responded very positively to those tomato-heavy dishes. Before long we've got meatball grinders, meatball pizza, meatball Hot Pockets.

Meatballs and spaghetti is the great success story when it comes to ethnic food in America, because no one really thinks of it as ethnic food anymore - families without a drop of Italian blood in them have been making them long enough to have family recipes that have been passed down for generations. Even in the 1950s - one of the whitest, Protestantest, meatloafiest times in American history - Wednesday was Prince spaghetti day.

Like the hamburger, pepperoni pizza, or the ice cream cone, meatballs and spaghetti is a dish that took a European kernel, adapted it to American circumstance, and created a mainstream icon that transcended its origins.


  1. Nor a Lender ('s bagel) be

  2. The deviled avocado-egg is brilliant. I'm going to have to experiment.