The History of Meatballs
The history of the meatball is obscure and early recipes are rare. Though many culinary inventions have been recorded decisively, no one is sure where the meatball originated. It takes little imagination, however, to think that until meat grinders were invented, the meat used in many dishes would have been cooked, leftover meat that was shredded by hand, minced in any number of primitive ways, or pounded with a heavy object. Would there be recorded recipes for using what was at hand?
In the global history of food and cooking, meat was rare and was reserved primarily for the rich. As a precious commodity, we can assume that no part of meat was ever wasted and the meatball, invented long before there were sophisticated grinders or cookbooks jammed with recipes, was a way to get the nutrition from meat for another day's food. The variety of meat used for meatballs would be determined by geography. Pork might have been the first used in China whose mainstay was the pig, while we know that the ancient Berber tribes of North Africa shepherded wild sheep that had highly prized fatty tails.
Language may give us some clues and all indications point to Persia as the origin of meatballs. The word kofta, used in variations throughout the Middle East, India and Central Asia probably comes from the Persian word koofteh which means 'pounded meat' and derives from the verb koobidand, 'to pound.' There are many variations, some which are usually made with ground or mashed meat, kneaded and mixed with other ingredients to form a smooth paste. Some are cooked in a sauce, while others are threaded on skewers in which case they transform into kebabs. From Persia (today's Iran) koofteh spread throughout all the Middle East and traveled into Mogul India.
From the 2nd to the 9th centuries, Arab domination was all-pervasive, and as Islam spread throughout the Middle East, often through trade of spices as well as armed might, their foods were carried with them.
The Venetians who dominated the spice trade with the Arab nations have no such boring meatball and their polpette di carne may reflect the Arab influence as they make highly seasoned meatballs which may include candied citron, pine nuts and even be dusted with sugar. Alas, most of the Arab influence was lost and few recipes remain.
History tells us that in the Golden Age of Spain when Andalusia was an Arab domain name al-andalus, the Arabs brought refinements to the tables of Spain. In the description of dishes we find many dishes that originated in Baghdad during the Abassid period when Baghdad was the jewel of the Middle East. Among the dishes we find recipes for meatballs and small triangular pieces of dough fried in coriander oil. Language again gives us a guide. The Spanish word for meatballs is albondigas, a word that has an Arab origin al-bunduq which means hazelnut. These were tiny meatballs indeed.
In ancient Rome, Apicius, the earliest writer of ancient Rome, mentions round meat patties, and lists their recipes in order of his preference. The best, says Apicius were made of peacock after which he enjoyed meatballs made of pheasant, then rabbit, then chicken and, last, suckling pig. Despite the use of pork today, the lowly pig ranked last in Apicius list. The Romans were adventurers and conquerors, and had clashed with the Arabs on the benighted island of Sicily. (see our article on Sicily) This may again lead to the suggestion that the Middle East gave us meatballs and meatball recipes.
Through the centuries, meatballs became so commonplace in Italy that Pellegrino Artusi (1820 - 1911) was inspired to write over a meatball recipe:
" Do not think for a moment that I would be so pretentious as to tell you how to make meatballs this is a dish that everyone knows how to make, including absolute donkeys Indeed it was probably the donkey who first suggested the basic shape of the meatball to humans. My sole intention is to tell you how to prepare them when you have leftover boiled meat."
In that same period of time, recipes emerged. We learn from the Oxford English Dictionary that in 1838 meatballs were described as "any combination of raw or cooked meat shaped into balls." A recipe written in 1877 used mutton and veal necks. The meatball was a lowly creation.
The Venetians who dominated the spice trade with the Arab nations have no such boring meatball and their polpette di carne may reflect the Arab influence as they make highly seasoned meatballs which may include candied citron, pine nuts and even be dusted with sugar.
We do not know the development of the meatball in China but the famous Lion's Head Meatballs are cooked all along the Yangtze river. There are variations in the sauce of these meatballs, contingent on the region, but they are basic in their appearance as these are large meatballs, often served with cabbage, which gives the appearance of a lion's mane. The recipes vary, but the presentation is always the same, the lion-headed meatball.
The Chinese also specialize in fish balls that go into fish ball soup. These are small balls made of pounded fish or shrimp.
Swedish meatballs may have developed on their own. They are smaller than the European meatballs and served in a cream sauce with ligonberrry preserves. which would hint at luxury. But again, we find that the humble meatball, mainstay to the nutrition around the globe, was not deemed worthy to be written as a recipe in early days. Today Swedish meatballs are so popular the there are many recipes available.
The world would have to wait for the invention of the meat grinder to begin the transition into using fresh meat. In the US Patent Office we find a patent issued to E. Wade in 1829 for a rudimentary grinder. In 1845 a second invention was recorded, this using a spiral feed and rotating cutting knives. This made it possible for the average person to buy ground meat, not mince the leftovers. Butchers at the turn of the century would grind meat upon order. If a child was present with the housewife purchasing meat, the butcher might offer a tiny sample of the freshly ground meat as a treat to the child while mother exchanged a new meatball recipe with a neighbor.