In Philly, a Veggie Meatball Spurs Fighting Words

Chef Jennifer Zavala brought vegan meatballs to a meatball contest and all hell broke out ...
Jennifer Zavala poses in front of a picture of her vegan meatballs
A well-known local chef, was the only one to bring vegan meatballs — and she takes pride in the rave reviews they got. Jennifer Zavala

When Jennifer Zavala brought her homemade meatballs to a food contest in South Philly, they turned a lot of heads — many of them in the opposite direction.

"People had their backs turned to me," she tells MNN. "People were not talking to me. People were shunning me. It was so crazy."

The thing is, Zavala may have committed an unpardonable offense at this month’s Fourth Annual Meatball and Gravy contest. Her meatballs, inspired by the traditional Sicilian panelle, contained no meat. Just ground up chickpeas.

And, by many accounts, they were pretty good.

"Frankly, the balls and the gravy... they were ... among my favorite tastes of the day," wrote one of the judges.

Vegan meatballs made with chickpeas
Zavala's entry was inspired by a traditional Sicilian dish called panelle. Jennifer Zavala

At some point, there were even rumblings that Zavala’s vegan meatballs had taken the top prize. The very idea that these upstart non-meatballs could win the day at a contest that swears by the gospel of pork, beef and veal, nearly incited a riot.

"The tattooed [lady] won!" someone was overheard exclaiming amid the crowd.

"You gotta be f---ing kidding me," chimed another.

Then things took an even darker turn. Although Zavala didn’t actually win — "I lost every competition I ever entered," she says — some people couldn’t let go of their beef with the well-known local chef.

The response, long after the contest ended, ranged from indignant Facebook comments — "that will be the first and last time I attend that contest" — to outright personal threats.

"I got a few people who were like, 'Don’t let me catch you walking around' or 'I’ll knock you out,'" she says.

Zavala is more astounded by the overreaction than cowed by the threats.

"It doesn’t bother me at all," she says. "This is Philly. People will wish cancer on your kids for a parking spot."

Besides, she adds, maybe she managed to give a few people a fresh idea to chew on: Can a meatless meatball really be this good?

"The thing is nobody said they didn't like them," Zavala says. "I think that’s the problem. They were [that] good."