Like cheese on toast or mashed potato, a meatball is one of those painfully self-descriptive foodstuffs. It's meat, rolled into a ball. A ball of meat. Spherical-shaped meat mass.
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. As Philly Mag reports, this year's meatball competition ended in controversy when one of the contestants had the audacity to enter a vegan meatball.
Local chef Jennifer Zavala, who has appeared on Top Chef and ran a tamale truck in the city, made the offending balls with chickpeas in a twist on the Italian fritter known as panelle. Philly Mag reporter Victor Fiorillo was a judge on the competition and described them in his piece for the magazine as "among my 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," as well as one judge pointedly remark: "They're called meatballs."
When a rumour got out that Zavala had won the competition with her vegan balls (she hadn't, it was another female chef, Jena Leigh, who entered a Calabrese meatball with pork and veal), things turned nasty. 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 reputation for hearty and traditional meatballs.
Fiorillo reportedly heard one woman say to her friend, "That tattooed bitch won!" while another lamented, "They weren't even meatballs!"
The misplaced outrage at Zavala's supposed win continued on the event's Facebook page, where 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 (admittedly pretty tasty looking) vegan meatballs and say: "Thanks #Philly for the weirdest 2 days of my life."
Who knew that chickpeas could turn out to be such a curveball?