Spags ‘n balls, and a Daisy a Day
Back in the day, when I lived at Sugarloaf in the winter and Boothbay Harbor in the summer, part of a group we called “The Route 27 Club,” as Route 27 will take you from Southport directly to Sugarloaf, we served spaghetti and meatballs at Tufulio’s.
My friend Jeanne (Whitestone) Casey who waited on tables, dubbed the dish spags ’n balls.
It sounds kind of gross, but there’s nothing gross about spags ’n balls. It’s one of those comfort foods that a lot of us had growing up. My mother, with four kids to cook for, usually opted for ground beef mixed into the homemade sauce, rather than making balls, and that was just as good.
But there’s something about having your own private meatballs in a rich red sauce perched atop a big pasta bowl full of al dente spaghetti, linguine, angel hair pasta, bows or ziti.
Spags 'n balls is purely American, though it did apparently start with Italian immigrants coming here around 1900. In Italy meatballs are around the size of golf balls, and they’re called polpettes. Cute. The next time I make spags ‘n balls I’m going to make them little and cute, and call them polpettes. I’ll serve them over pasta bows. Bows ’n polpettes :-)
Or maybe I’ll use the thick tube pasta called bigoli. Bigoli ’n balls.
One night back in the late 70s Joe Williamson, who owned Tufulio’s (and McSeagull’s) and I were invited to our friend, Jud Strunk’s octagonal house in Eustis just north of Sugarloaf. Jud had a knack for making everyday events anything but ordinary. He told us to “dress” for the occasion. It was a cold and windy night :-). I wore an old yellow knee-length prom dress, some thick long johns, and L.L. Bean boots.
He had hired a waiter, black tux and all, with a white linen towel over his arm. He served Joe and me and Jud and his girlfriend spags n’ balls, with a lot of wine, at the huge dining table. What I remember most about that night was a lot of laughter.
I also remember Jud playing his banjo and singing his hit song, “Daisy a Day.” It was at the top of the country music charts at that time.
The next fall Joe and I flew out to California to meet up with his partner, Larry Sullivan (Sully). They had just sold Tufulio’s and McSeagull’s. We stayed at a friend’s house in San Fransisco for around a month, then drove back to Maine.
Sully was driving, and somewhere in Colorado he took a back dirt road he had found on a map. We ended up at a little bar in a town called State Bridge. It was the only building in town from what I remember.
When we walked in, “Daisy a Day” was playing on the jukebox. There were five or six cowboy types at the bar, and a tough-looking woman was serving them shots of Jose Cuervo Gold. We bellied up, and just to be friendly, ordered shots too. Every time “Daisy a Day” ended, one of the cowboys fired it up again. It was a popular song in that bar out in the middle of nowhere.
Joe, known for his card tricks, asked the bartender for a deck of cards and the phone behind the bar (this was before cellphones). He told her he waned to make a long-distance call, and he’d leave money to cover it. Then he asked one of the cowboys to pick a card and show it to him. He said he was going to call “The Wizard,” and if The Wizard could guess what the card was, the cowboy had to buy us all shots.
It's a great trick. The Wizard “guessed” the next dozen cards, and needless to say there wasn't a sober cowboy, or Mainer in the bar.
Just before we left, Joe made one last phone call to the Wizard. He asked him if he had his banjo nearby, and if he'd mind playing “Daisy a Day” for the cowboys. He did, and we left the cowboys passing the phone around to one after the other, saying, “Oh my god. The Wizard is Jud Strunk.”
Jud used to spend part of his summers here in a little cottage on the river near Robinson’s Wharf with his three sons, Rory, Jeff and Joel. He died, way too young, in a small plane crash with his good friend Dick Ayotte at the Sugarloaf airport in 1981.
Anyway. Spags 'n balls. I started thinking about it a couple days ago, and you know how that goes. Had to have some that night. Luckily I had a can of crushed tomatoes and some frozen ground beef.
There's no trick to making spags 'n balls. Roll up some balls of good ground beef, with some breadcrumbs, an egg, salt and pepper, and whatever herbs and spices you like. Brown them in a pan while you whip up a potful of good, rich tomato sauce, starting with sauteed garlic and onions. Throw the balls in the sauce and sip a manhattan while you watch it simmer and bubble.
And here's a little secret: Throw in a pinch of allspice. I guarantee the sauce won't taste like a Christmas cookie or gingerbread. It will just add a little flavor that will make people smack their lips and ask why it’s so good.
Seriously. Try it.
Next week I promise I'll give you a real recipe. It will be for something sweet, delicious, pretty and out-of-the-ordinary.
See ya then.