Like cheese on toast or mashed potatoes, meatballs are one of those painfully self-descriptive foodstuffs. It’s meat, rolled into a ball, or if you’d rather, a spherical meat nugget. Seasoned as you please and partner to a plethora of different meals.
And impossible to get wrong, you’d think. But then you probably weren’t at the fourth annual Meatball and Gravy Contest at Philadelphia’s Tap Room on 19th bar last week. For four years, it appears that people have been taking meatballs very seriously.
Like the set-up to a fairly anodyne movie, this year was going to be different. 2017’s meatball competition ended in controversy when one of the contestants had the audacity to enter a vegan meatball.
Local chef Jennifer Zavala, a cook who has appeared on Top Chef and runs a tamale truck in Philly, made the offending meatballs with chickpeas instead of meat.
In a twist on an Italian fritter known as panelle, Zavala’s chickpea meatballs were the talk of the town. Philly Mag, a publication dedicated to the best culture that the state has to offer, had a reporter on the judging board who fell in love with the meat alternative.
Victor Fiorillo described the bite-sized chunks as “among [his] favourite tastes of the day, in spite of them being meat-free balls at a meatball competition.”
Sadly, not everyone at the competition was quite so pleased with Zavala’s meatless entry. Fiorillo wrote that he overheard “more than a few snickers and disses about Zavala’s entry throughout the day.” One judge even remarked “They’re called meatballs.” I can imagine there was a second part to that dad joke but it must have been edited out.
And when a rumour got out that Zavala had won the competition with her vegan balls (even though she hadn’t, it was another female chef, Jena Leigh, who entered a Calabrese meatball with pork and veal), the meatballs weren’t the only spicy things on the menu.
According to Fiorillo, the crowd was incensed at the thought of a chickpea ball winning a meatball competition in South Philadelphia, an area of the city with a proud Italian community and a reputation for whipping up hearty and traditional meatballs.
Fiorillo allegedly heard a woman say to her friend.”That tattooed b*tch won!” while another lamented, “They weren’t even meatballs!” It’s safe to say that opinion was polarized and the misplaced outrage at Zavala’s supposed win even spilt onto social media.
On the event’s Facebook page, commenters wrote:”So pissed off… Never again” and “How does a non-meat meatball win at a south Philly meatball contest? I feel sad for people that took the time to make a real meatball and lost to a gluten-free chickpea rolled ball.”
Zavala, however, seemed to take the comments in her stride. posting on her own Facebook page after Meatballgate, “I may not make it out of Monday alive!! Apparently making a non-meat, meat-a-ball.. gets one death threats.”
She also took to Twitter to share a photo of her vegan meatballs and say “Thanks, #Philly for the weirdest 2 days of my life.”
I have to say I’m on her side. The chickpea balls look amazing. If you’re in a position in life where your only worries are another woman’s vegan meatballs, you should really find something else to do.