Jennifer Zavala, chef and fierce food truck owner, entered the fourth annual Meatballs & Gravy contest in South Philadelphia with meatballs in her bowl and competition on her brain. Her signature meatballs, however, have a catch — they don’t have any meat in them.
Zavala makes her meatballs from chickpeas, actually more like the Sicilian dish called panelle than what we would consider a meatball. But according to the contest’s regulations, Zavala’s dish more than qualified for competition.
The judges and attendees, however, were not as inclined to be inclusive. And as Victor Fiorello explained in an article for Philadelphia magazine, the situation got disturbingly intense.
“It’s not a f---ing vegan competition,” said one judge, grumbling over his scorecard.
“They’re called meatballs,” chimed another, cleverly.
Attendees and free-food-seekers began to make comments, as well, sneering at Zavala’s entry and throwing insults her way — after, of course, having readily accepted her food.
But when the announcement of the winner was heard, things got even more heated.
“The tattooed b---- won!” said one woman, aghast. Her friends joined in with her griping, insisting that Zavala’s meatballs weren’t meatballs at all — and, as such, shouldn’t have won. Word spread quickly through the meat-loving community, all of which was offended that the entry had apparently marred their otherwise meaty competition.
After the day had ended, attendees took to the only form of communication braver than a shouted insult from a crowd — the Facebook comments section.
“How does a non-meat meatball win at a South Philly meatball contest?” one commenter whined. “I feel sad for people that took the time to make a real meatball and lost to a gluten-free chickpea rolled ball.”
“That will be the first and last time I attend that contest there,” another rashly claimed.
“So pissed off… Never again.”
While these comments seem disproportionately angry compared the minor complaint of a meatless meatball, these were the tip of the iceberg. Zavala claims to have gotten even more hateful comments and messages — not as publicly announced, but still alarmingly impassioned.
“I may not make it out of Monday alive!!” Zavala wrote on Facebook. “Apparently making a non-meat, meat-a-ball.. gets one death threats.”
But here’s the thing: Zavala didn’t even win the competition. It was a misunderstanding — a mix-up from the crowd between her and another tattooed competitor. The real winner made a mean batch of meat-filled meatballs, gluten and all.
One thing we learned from all this: Don’t mess with Philly’s meatball-lovers. They’re a fiery crowd. All this over a simple Italian dish — we can’t even imagine what would happen if someone vegan-ized their best cheesesteaks.