Jason Zenobia

The Unbearable Lightness of Meatballs

Jason Zenobia shares his love of learning about people through the food that they enjoy, and relates an early experience with his husband regarding an overabundance of meatballs. 


About 21 years ago, shortly after I’d gotten together with the man who is now my husband, I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. As I mentioned a few things we needed, Brent made a list in preparation for his trip to the store.

He scribbled as I spoke.

“Oregano, marjoram, mint, breadcrumbs …”

Then I got to the meat of things.

“Six pounds of ground beef, two pounds of ground pork …”

As we stood facing each other in our small kitchen, I noticed that his pen had stopped moving. He raised his eyebrows and turned to look over his shoulder, surveying the dining room behind him. He walked a few short steps to peer from there into the living room. I thought he was looking for something.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just checking to see how many people are here.”

I didn’t know what he was getting at. I answered slowly, “Two. There are two of us.”

“Oh, I see. It’s just that you’re asking me to purchase enough food to make, I’m guessing, 500 meatballs, I’d say?”

“500 sounds about right.”

He put the pen down.

On my Dad’s side, I’m Jewish, and on my Mom’s side, Italian. When I was growing up, my family engaged in all-day cooking marathons where my parents, brother, and I would gather in the kitchen for hours. Sometimes it was meatballs. The four of us would mix, knead, roll, and fry the little balls, as tomato sauce simmered in a six-gallon pot. It was enough to feed an army. The house smelled of garlic for days, and so did we. It got into our pores and stayed there. At school, everyone said that I smelled like a delicatessen.

Food was at the heart of everything we did. When we weren’t eating, we were cooking. If we weren’t doing those two things, we were planning to cook and eat our next meal. We also sat around and reminisced about meals we’d eaten, and we fantasized about meals we’d eat some day. We planned international trips so that we could eat things when we got there.

Early in my high school days, we flew to Hong Kong. When my friends asked me how it was, I told them about the snake soup and dim sum we had, and our trip to the Young Key Goose restaurant where you had to take an elevator to get to your table.

“Yes, but what about the city? The people? The art? The language?”

“Oh, right, those things.”

Don’t get me wrong. I care about people and art and things like that. I just find that my path to learn about people is through what they enjoy for breakfast, or what their favorite snack is. Fried crickets in Thailand? Yes.

So there I was, 21 years ago, with an opportunity to learn about my future husband, and what it meant to cook for two people. It seemed downright antisocial. Is that what marriage is? I wondered.

This was years before I went to cooking school and became a professional chef, so I decided to call for backup. She answered the phone on the second ring.

“Hi Mom, it’s your gay son.”

“Hello, gay son. What’s up?”

“Well, I’m trying to make meatballs.”

She leapt right into the recipe. “You’ll need about six to eight pounds of ground beef …”

“Wait!” I cut her off. “I’m trying to make enough for just two people.”

She rolled the foreign words off her tongue, “Enough for just two people?” She paused to consider. “That can’t be done. It’s a myth.”

I managed to whittle the recipe down to about two dozen large meatballs. I felt strange cracking only a couple of eggs and tossing a mere half cup of breadcrumbs into the small bowl of meat. Everything looked so meager.

When we finished eating, Brent surveyed the leftovers. Seventeen meatballs and almost a pound of pasta. “That’s a lot of food.”

“No,” I said, “no, it’s not.”


Jason Zenobia

Jason Zenobia is a trained, professional chef, writer, and whiskey enthusiast living in Portland, Oregon with his husband and three cats. He is a Sagittarius who loves to travel, run barefoot on the beach, and find new uses for the word "fabulous."

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