Meatballs: A Happy Food In Hard Times

At the recent New York Wine and Food Festival, the Meatball Madness competition was sold out. That madness is spreading all over the country. Americans think of meatballs perched on top of spaghetti all covered in cheese, but meatballs are universal. Weekend Edition commentator Bonny Wolf reports on the latest foodie trend shaking things up.

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In hard times, comfort food can be reassuring so perhaps that's why one of the latest foodie trends shouldn't be much of a surprise. Gourmet meatballs, anyone? WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf takes note.

BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: If you live in New York City, you've seen this coming. The meatball shop opened last year in the Lower East Side and has been so popular there are now three of them offering meatballs with your choice of sauce. Uptown is an Italian restaurant called Polpette. Translation, meatball. A few weeks ago, The Meatball Factory opened near Gramercy Park. There's even a bartender, excuse me, mixologist in New York who makes what he calls a meatball cocktail. It involved frying spicy sausages then draining the fat into Irish whiskey.

At the recent New York Wine and Food Festival, the meatball madness competition was sold out. The judge's choice award went to the Little Owl Restaurant's gravy meatball slider, a recipe from the owner's grandmother. They sell more than 1,000 a week. The madness is spreading. Meatballs are served with butter and thyme in Chicago and made of foie gras in Minneapolis. L.A.'s Great Balls on Tire's meatball truck urges patrons to join the re-ball-ution.

Meatballs are now on the menu at Appleby's and neighborhood delis. And in the nation's capitol, James Beard award-winning chef Michel Richard known for sophisticated French cuisine has just opened a restaurant called Meatballs. Do they even have meatballs in France? Americans think of meatballs perched on top of spaghetti all covered in cheese, but meatballs are universal. Spanish albondigas are popular tapas. Greek keftedes are made with lamb and mint and Japanese sec une (sp) use chicken and ginger.

Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Moroccan and Indian cuisines all feature spherical meats. And let us not forget the Swedish meatball. Variations on these themes are played out in the new meatballeries. The meatball madness winners included a goat curry ball and a rabbit ball. There are meatballs made with lean meats such as bison and ostrich. There are jambalaya balls and turducken balls. There are even vegetarian meatballs, whatever that means. And if you want to make balls at home, at least six new books have been published in just the last two months focusing on the food orbs.

Why meatballs? They're affordable and familiar. They're a happy food in hard times. To quote from the new meatball shop cookbook, "meatballs are the ultimate cure-all for anything that ails you."

CORNISH: Bonny Wolf is working on a book about the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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