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The mighty meatball! A wonder of flesh-based design.

I was always afraid to make meatballs from scratch.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it goes back to the whole fear of cooking large cuts of meat (see my musings on that here and here), but for some reason the whole “form ground meat into solid, cohesive lumps without having them collapse” has had me so freaked out that I have kept to the frozen President’s Choice meatballs for the last 10 years.

But, staring at a package of ground turkey in the fridge and not wanting to resort to my usual recipe of baking dish + ground meat + pasta + Bolognese + whatever vegetables are left in the fridge, I decided I would break out of the mould and make the world’s grossest bowl of homemade silly putty.

I understand vegetarianism.  I really do.  When I’m wrist deep in a bowl of cold, raw, ground-up turkey I understand it in a visceral sense.  Throw in a raw egg and some breadcrumbs and I am ready to swear off meat altogether.  It just seems so odd that anyone would have looked at such a disgusting combination of textures, smells, and sounds (mostly squelching), and then created something edible out of it.  (It reminded me of a story called “Sunbird” by Neil Gaiman, where a group of epicureans do their best to try to eat every kind of animal in the world, no matter how strange, disgusting, or endangered.)

The name doesn’t help things either.  “Meatballs” could be the worst title for a food other than “spotted dick.”  (I still giggle at both of them.)  It also ranks right up there with “meatloaf,” since anything that implies that ground flesh has been hand-formed into a shape (be it balls, loaf, or logs) lacks a certain gastronomic je ne sais quoi.

I managed to mash my way through the mixing process, using my bare hand just like the books said to (since tools apparently rip up the meat too much), and then I got down to rolling my meatballs (snicker snicker).  While mashing, I managed to keep the contamination down to just my right hand, but all of the sudden I was two hands deep in raw poultry and raw egg.  I don’t know about you, but I was raised to believe that these two substances, in their raw forms, came straight from the bowels of bacterial hell.  Anything that comes in contact with either of them must immediately be wiped down, steam-cleaned, bleached, disinfected, and burned.  Failure to do so will result in instant infection by salmonella, listeria, and the black plague, followed by a slow and painful death as your colon goes rogue and attacks all of your internal organs.

This, of course, ignores the fact that most raw meat and eggs are perfectly safe, and that people have been eating both for thousands of years with very few ill effects, but it’s hard to get over roughly three decades of conditioning.

I rolled up about two-dozen meatballs, trying to ignore the greasy, slimy film over everything, and finally stood triumphantly over the baking sheet.  There they were, an army of cohesive meaty lumps, reeking of garlic and Cajun spice, neatly lined up and ready to be baked.  But I was also standing there with my immunologically compromised hands held up like I had just been scrubbed in for surgery by the local butcher.  I knew that I couldn’t open the oven door and pop the meatballs in without disinfecting my hands, but I also couldn’t operate the sink or handle the bottle of soap.

It turns out that your elbows can do a lot more than you give them credit for.  I got the water going with a minimum of flailing, but the soap was a bit trickier.  I found that by pinching the bottle between both elbows, I could squirt it into the air and catch most of the falling dish detergent in my bacteria-covered hands.

Amazingly, the meatballs were edible, and I only ended up contracting listeria and hepatitis B and C.