Old-fashioned Beef Balls with Spaghetti

There are some foods where the recipes were just plain different a century ago than what they are now. Spaghetti is one of those foods. Modern marinara sauce recipes often call for basil and oregano, but those spices are seldom seen in old recipes.

I decided to make a hundred-year-old recipe for Beef Balls with Spaghetti. The recipe for the sauce called only for tomatoes, green pepper, onion, parsley, water, and salt. I had my doubts about the recipe, and worried that it won’t be spicy enough.

I worried needlessly. This recipe was a hit.

My husband said, “This spaghetti is great. It reminds me of the spaghetti they served when I was in elementary school. Mom never made spaghetti, and this was my favorite meal at school.”

Here’s the original recipe:

Source: Cooking for Everyday by Janet McKenzie Hill (1919)

And, here’s the recipe updated for modern cooks. (I made this recipe entirely on top of the stove. I couldn’t figure out why the 1919 recipe calls for doing part of the cooking in the oven.)

Beef Balls with Spaghetti

  • Servings: 8 - 10
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

1 28-ounce can tomatoes (or use a 1 quart jar of tomatoes)

1 green pepper, chopped

1 onion, chopped + 1 teaspoon onion, grated

2 bunches parsley, chopped

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt + 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound ground beef

1 egg

1/4 cup bread crumbs

3 tablespoons shortening or cooking oil

1/2 pound spaghetti

1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350° F. To make sauce, put tomatoes, green pepper, 1 chopped onion, parsley, water, and 1 teaspoon salt in a large saucepan; stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1/2 hour. Remove from heat, cool slightly, then puree.

While the vegetables are cooking, combine ground beef, egg, bread crumbs, 1 teaspoon grated onion, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl, then shape into 12 balls each approximately 1-inch in diameter. Put shortening or oil into a skillet, and heat. Add the beef balls, and cook for 3-5 minutes, then gently roll over. Roll several times until browned on all sides.

Put spaghetti sauce back in sauce pan, add beef balls. Using medium heat bring to a boil; reduce heat and gently simmer for 45 minutes while stirring occasionally.

Beginning about 15 minutes before the sauce will be finished, cook spaghetti according to package instructions.

To serve, remove sauce from heat, and take beef balls out of the sauce.  Add spaghetti and parmasen cheese to the sauce, and lift with a fork until well blended. Add meatballs. Serve immediately

40 thoughts on “Old-fashioned Beef Balls with Spaghetti

  1. That’s interesting. Back when I was a child in 1950s Britain, pasta was almost unknown , except for macaroni cheese, and as a PUDDING too. My family was very unusual in eating it. Now – what would we all do without it?

    1. My sense is that ground beef was not as readily available a hundred years ago as what it is now – and that people often ground their own beef. The spaghetti sauce that your parents made sounds lovely. I like how they used ingredients from their garden.

  2. My mother never made meatballs, her sauce was always made with ground beef. One thing she did do was break the spaghetti in half because the package that she bough was much longer than what is sold today.

    1. It’s easier to just use ground beef rather than taking the time and effort to make meat balls – though the meatballs in the sauce more prominently feature the meat than when cooked ground beef is just stirred into the sauce. Now that you mention it, I think that my mother may have also broken the spaghetti in half.

  3. I never had pasta like that as a young child maybe macaroni cheese or as a pudding as Margaret said…I was the first to make it for my mum and sisters when the Dairy cookbook came out in 1968 and it was considered very exotic not something normally eaten. My father refused to eat it although he did many years later.

    1. I think that my father would eat pasta, but I don’t think that he cared much for it. Similarly to your father, I think that he thought that it was an unusual food.

  4. This isn’t exactly recipe related, but I can’t remember ever hearing the phrase “beef balls.” We always called them meatballs, and that’s what I remember from all my recipe books and family recipes. Like Karen, I grew up with ground beef in the sauce rather than meatballs, but I do love a good meatball. I think my mother was just a little lazy, and I can be, too!

  5. This is wonderful. Beef balls? Never heard that term before. Like your husband I remember the spaghetti served in the elementary school cafeteria. I liked it, too.

    1. It’s interesting how the recipe author was so specific about what type of meat went into the balls. I have some bad memories of school cafeteria foods, but I also have some good ones.

      1. It is amazing how recipes evolve. I learned yesterday on a cooking show that spaghetti originated from China, not Italy. Marco Polo brought it to Venice

        1. I know that people generally eat noodles (rather than rice) in some sections of northern China, so this makes sense; though, like you, I had always thought that spaghetti originated in Italy.

  6. Spaghetti has always been a favorite at our house. I can’t say why I never made meatballs with the spaghetti! I’ve always used cooked ground beef in my sauce. Just last week I made spaghetti with baked meatballs. They were excellent…as I’m sure these are! The sauce looks like a lighter version and I would love the addition of onion and green pepper. I can see why this one is a keeper!

  7. I still love to make meatballs with my spaghetti. One thing I read not long ago when I was making Spaghetti Amerigo is that the pasta is supposed to be the “star” not the spaghetti sauce. Maybe that was the reason for the simplicity of the sauce? The only thing I ever heard about meatballs was that browning them quickly and then cooking slowly kept them from falling apart. While I do cook mine on top of the stove, it is in a pan with a tight fit, and at very low heat after they are browned. Regardless, this looks yummy!

    1. I like that idea that the pasta is the “star.” I didn’t have any problems with these meatballs falling apart – but it’s always so frustrating when I make crab cakes, or croquettes, or some other fried food that falls apart.

  8. I always go heavy on the Basil. I add Basil to anything possible. This recipe does sound delicious! I remember my Grandmother made the best Spaghetti ever. No idea how she made it but I would think it was based upon an older recipe.

    1. If you can suspend the idea that spaghetti sauce should contain basil and oregano, this sauce is good. That said, this sauce does taste different from sauces with those spices. 🙂

  9. This looks very delicious, I wonder if these beef meatballs can go along with the Filipino style spaghetti. There’s only one way to find out. Gonna try this recipe for our weekend get together. Can’t wait to know what would it taste. Thank you for sharing this recipe.

    1. You’ll have a let me know who these beef balls work with Filipino-style spaghetti. Now I’m curious about Filipino-style spaghetti. Your comment makes we want to go to a Filipino restaurant and try some.

  10. I’m a Basics kinda gal. I was raised on recipes created from the 1880’s to the late 1940’s and I love how simple and uncomplicated, and thrifty, they are! This looks like a keeper, for sure! I don’t fancy modern spaghetti sauces; I find them to spicy or cloying. This looks like something right up my alley! Thanks so much for the article and the modern update of ingredients.

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