There are things certain people take seriously.
Southerners and grits.
Canadians and hockey.
South Philadelphians and meatballs.
I take meatballs and sauce seriously, too. As a third generation Italian, I watched my grandmother spend hours over the stove on Sundays tending to the big pot of sauce. I watched intently when my parents seasoned the garlic and the blend of meats just waiting…hoping for them to ask me to do anything.
“Okay, you can stir,” they eventually said. Then I got to crack the egg in the meatball mix and pour in some breadcrumb.
When I worked with Italian women, I eavesdropped on their conversations about sauce and meatball techniques and played dumb.
“I would love to be able to make a pot of sauce for my husband, but my grandmother wouldn’t let me near the stove,” I said.
One eventually took pity and guided me through the process from purchasing the products to completion.
Over the years, I have worked to make a better pot of sauce of meatballs; one that would make my grandmom – God rest her ever-stirring-the-sauce-soul – proud; and one that my mother would eat and not critique too harshly.
It’s my go-to-meal for dinner when we are hosting guests and I’ve received nothing but stellar reviews.
“Wow, this is incredible.”
“Way better than anything I get in a restaurant.”
The compliments to the chef are nice but on a recent Sunday afternoon, my best friend, Christina, and I competed in the Meatball and Gravy Contest hosted by Tap Room on 19th with 30 other contestants who take the matter as serious as a priest takes Sunday mass.
The contest was open to restaurants, home cooks and “anyone who thinks they make the best meatballs and gravy in Philly.”
Since space was limited, Christina and I decided to join forces and called ourselves the “Saucy Broads.” Also a third generation Italian, Christina’s sauce and meatballs are similar to mine, have their own unique qualities and are a huge hit for the holidays.
The week before the event we gathered in my kitchen for a practice run. Not that we haven’t been practicing for most of our lives. Her and I cook and bake over the holidays so this wasn’t a “too many cooks” situation. Although, we did have to use force to keep my husband out of the kitchen since he kept sneaking in for a sample.
On an overcast late Sunday afternoon, the part of the street in front of Taproom on 19th was closed and people were lined up before the contest began. Team “Saucy Broads” and “Daddy’s Big Balls.” who was next to us, ran out of meatballs, along with most of the other contestants in the front of the line, in about 40 minutes.
The contest was determined by six judges composed of media, restaurant types, and regulars of the South Philly bar. Contestants were told in advance to make 50 meatballs and that the event would be free and open to the public. I would have liked the public to have a say in the final decision especially since we got positive feedback from those who sampled our sauce and meatballs.
In an anti-climactic announcement, Jena Taylor, wife of Brigantessa chef de cuisine Adam Taylor, a Vetri alum, was named the winner. A man named Charles was the runner up.
Then in true Philly fashion the drama started.
A few days before the contest, Phillymag.com ran an article about the contest and interviewed an entrant, South Philly chef Jennifer “Fear” Zavala, who made vegan meatballs. She added some good nature trash talking to the event when she said, “only basic bitches use meat.”
However, in a bit of miscommunication or misunderstanding – perhaps because Taylor has tattoos and so does Zavala – the vitriol started spewing, making Goodfellas seem like Frozen.
“That f-ing vegan bitch won.” “F- this m-fing sh-. Her balls ain’t sh-. I’m done.” “They should have never let that bitch and her fake ass balls in.”
On this day, a healthy alternative lifestyle vegan meatball was referred to with the same kind of contempt as if someone said they preferred Ragu.
Christina and I had an unforgettable experience perfecting our sauce recipe, feeding the South Philly masses and then sharing our leftover sauce with family and friends. We got to taste a few other meatballs – and still preferred ours.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the contest is that Christina and I can go until Christmas without having to make, or eat, a meatball.
A serious statement from two Saucy Broads.
Katie Kohler is a SPIRIT staff reporter.