Search This Blog

Thursday, December 29, 2011

MEATBALL WARS (and Other Holiday Traditions)

My family of origin is Italian-American so it may not surprise you that many of our holiday traditions center on food (oh, and also on guilt, but that’s a blog for a less jolly occasion.) Our most deeply rooted food tradition is a recipe passed down from my father’s side of the family. We call it Baked Macaroni, but its modest name hardly does justice to the layers of baked fettuccini noodles, tiny meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, pepperoni, locatelli and bubbly imported provolone cheese, smothered in “gravy” (aka tomato sauce for those without South Philly roots.)

We’re not sure how the recipe originated, but conventional family wisdom suggests it was our grandmother’s version of lasagna.  Since childhood, it is what we eat for Christmas dinner. If you’ve never stood at the kitchen counter for hours on end chopping eggs, pepperoni, and cheese, stirring gravy and rolling 7 or 8 HUNDRED cherry-sized meatballs, you may not appreciate what a tedious labor of love making Baked Macaroni can be. When it became too much for our mother, she passed the honors to my sister, Jeanne.

Well, sort of passed them. She relinquished the manual labor, but in the tradition of a good Italian mother, she retained general contractor rights. That meant starting in August, at every family get-together she might be heard asking questions like, “How many pounds of pasta will you use,” or “when will you start the gravy” or “how many meatballs will you roll?” Naturally there were no correct answers to these questions and they inevitably led to lively debates which my husband, Jim, affectionately dubbed, “THE MEATBALL WARS.”

Jim and I took over making the Baked Macaroni a few years ago and this year is our fourth Christmas since Mom died. It’s no surprise we miss her sitting at the holiday table. Who could have predicted how much we would also miss the Meatball Wars?


  1. What a hoot! And a lovely tribute to your mom.

  2. The holidays really do bring out the memories of the loved ones who are no longer sitting around the table with us. It's nice that you have the reminder of Fragale style Baked Macaroni sounds. You have quite a few more years of meatball rolling potential, but I think you should start grooming your successor. Will the next generation keep the flame alive?

  3. Great questions Chris. We only have 1 nephew and 1 niece(a vegetarian so little hope of continuing the tradition there)
    Your question brings up a more sensitive issue. None of the males in our generation have children which means our branch of the Fragale name ends with our generation. That makes me sad

  4. Sounds like a great, loving family. It is a wonderful thing to continue a strong family tradition. Great blog too!
    Mimi MacDonald Flanagan

  5. Hi Mimi, great to hear from you. I know you have different origins, but relate to the strong family ties.

  6. Carol, so many things I love about this. I'm so glad I have some of my grandmom's recipes, because whenever I make them, it's like she's still with us. I inherited the job of making her stuffing every Thanksgiving. It also reminded me of how we don't know what we might miss about someone when they're gone. After her sister died, my grandmom couldn't believe how much she missed fighting with her. God sure has a sense of humor. I'm sure he's enjoying listening to them fight now!

  7. Fantastic memories shared once again. I read aloud to Den and we laughed and laughed. Wishing you every blessing of the season and wishes for many more 'Meatball Wars'. xo

    1. Thanks Mare. Re-reading it made me smile, too. It's almost six years now since my mom died and the meatball wars is just one of many funny and happy memories.
      best to you and Dennis.

    2. That is the most original sounding lasagna I've ever heard of! I'm fascinated by the idea of it. Please consider posting a recipe sometime. It sounds so crazy I want to try it! Thanks for posting this lovely "food memoir" post, Carol.