The History of Grape Jelly Cocktail Meatballs

Just like dump cake, I first tried this recipe at a work potluck. It was while I was working as a visual merchandiser for a retail chain and my friend and co-worker at the time brought these meatballs to the event. I can’t remember now what she had called them though the ingredients were easy enough to remember when she recited the recipe to another coworker. The first time I personally made them was for a family party that I was tasked with bringing an appetizer. Needing something easy and cheap, I remembered these meatballs. That day they found a new fan with my father who every once in a while will start hinting that someone needs to make “those meatballs” as he loves to call them.

Who and where was Grape Jelly Cocktail Meatballs created?
I will admit I was shocked to pinpoint an actual source for this recipe. I knew I had to include these meatballs at some point on my blog but I never thought I would find enough information to warrant a history post. This recipe is attributed to the 1960 cookbook Elegant but Easy: A Cookbook for Hostesses by Marian Burros and Lois Levine. Though this recipe can be called by many names (more on that later), in the cookbook it goes by Chafing Dish Meatballs.

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What ingredients are in Grape Jelly Cocktail Meatballs?
The recipe is super easy to put together as it uses a few very simple ingredients. It is small meatballs that have been simmered in a sauce made up of chili sauce and grape jelly. The recipe in the Elegant but Easy cookbook includes the juice of one lemon but many recipes choose to omit it. The original recipe also cooked the meatballs in the sauce while other recipes of the time preferred to bake the meatballs separately before adding them to the sauce. Other changes throughout the years of this recipe has been the substitution of premade frozen meatballs sometimes for the homemade and the use of the slow cooker instead of the chafing dish. A popular swap is a can of jellied cranberry sauce for the grape jelly.

When was Grape Jelly Cocktail Meatballs popular?
Like I said earlier the first known printing of the recipe was in the Elegant but Easy cookbook from 1960. While I am sure some got the recipe from this great cookbook, this was a recipe in which word of mouth helped secure its place as a favorite appetizer to the women of the ’60s and ’70s. This is probably the reason why the recipe is called by so many different names which you will see highlighted as I talk about 1960s, 1970s and the attempt to update the appetizer in the early 2000s.

Cocktail Meatballs Spokane Review 1962

As mentioned this recipe was definitely a big favorite in the 1960s. It was submitted in 1962 to Dorothy Dean’s (a popular food columnist) Summer Recipes Contest. While the recipe which was called Meatballs a la Twist did not get top prize, it was given an honorable mention and the recipe was called a “real conversation piece”. A 1966 author jokes that they got the recipe from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend. She was shocked to find out that the sauce was just equal parts chili sauce and grape jelly and called it an “unlikely combination if I ever heard one” It also mentions that every person who gets the recipe thinks the ingredients are a mistake. Even the 1967 edition of Elegant but Easy says that the chafing dish meatballs are “probably the most popular hors d’oeuvres in the book”.

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In the 1970s this recipe was still going quite strong. Cecily Brownstone wrote about the meatballs in 1974 under the name Ruth Kochman’s Party Meatballs as they were the specialty of the hostess who hailed from Long Island, New York. In a 1972 article it is mentioned that the author got the recipe from her sister who lived in Atlanta who serves them “whenever she entertains” and they “always make a great hit”.  At a 1970s church picnic many were wondering about the ingredients in the cocktail meatballs. Some guessed honey, molasses or brown sugar and was surprised that the actual ingredients were just chili sauce and grape jelly. When asked where the woman who brought the dish got the recipe from, she said it was from a guest at another party she had attended. The group named the dish Mysterious Meatballs. A recipe for Tangy Buffet Meatballs was found in a 1979 newspaper with the promise that “there are no exotic ingredients or well-kept secrets to the preparation of Tangy Buffet Meatballs”. The article goes on to say that the readers will love this recipe and although the ingredient combo is unusual they are most likely already in the pantry.

In the 2000s, one starts to see this recipe get mentioned again in newspaper columns but usually with an updated twist. A 2000 article called the meatballs an “old favorite” when writing about a fundraising cookbook for a public television station. The grape jelly meatballs were included in the book and to the recipe was added a bit of soy and hoisin sauce. In probably one of the more head scratching names for these meatballs, they were called in a 2001 newspaper Italian meatballs. I am sure I am not alone about the images that get conjured up when hearing Italian meatballs and it is not ones drape in a sauce of grape jelly and chili sauce! I am guessing these might have gotten the name due to the crushed red pepper flakes that was added to the sauce. As we head into 2003, a recipe called No Fuss Meatballs uses frozen meatballs while adding soy sauce and Dijon mustard. The meatballs were included in a 2008 newspaper article for quick meals. They were called Saucy Meatballs and this one too uses frozen meatballs but swaps out the chili sauce for barbeque sauce. Also suggests serving them over mashed potatoes or pasta for a complete meal.

Of course with the popularity of the television show Mad Men and its 1960s setting, a 2008 article included the meatballs on the list of appetizers for a perfect swinging sixties party. Though many period accurate dishes where mentioned or shown on the show such as California dip and pineapple upside down cake, unfortunately the chafing meatballs were never so lucky. And in some random recent events, while walking through the frozen section while out shopping, I found grape jelly chili sauce meatballs. I guess the brand Farm Rich (trust me this is sooo not sponsored) has put out the flavor for a limited time.  

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Why should I make Grape Jelly Meatballs?
I feel like this is a recipe that if you know, you know and therefore I don’t need to explain how it is cheap to make, easy to put together with like barely any effort and it is quite tasty. If the combination of grape jelly and chili sauce makes you hesitate, a 1960s article promises that “the sweet flavor of the grape jelly somehow disappears and the meatballs actually have a rather tangy flavor”. In the early 2000s, another article expresses the same sentiment by calling it “an interesting combinations of flavors” and remarks that she usually has to double the recipe because these meatballs are quick to disappear.

Also you do not need to use grape jelly if that is not your cup of tea. Experiment with other flavors. The first time I made them I actually accidently grabbed seedless blackberry preserves and now that is the way my family makes it. As stated earlier canned cranberry sauce is often used instead of the jelly. Though I love the simplicity of the dish with the two ingredients, try playing with the flavors a bit. Channel the early 2000’s by maybe adding a bit of hoisin sauce, Dijon mustard or I know someone who likes to add minced onions to the mix. The ladies of the mid century where not afraid to experiment and neither should you.

How do you make Grape Jelly Cocktail Meatballs?
I am going to be real honest here. You don’t need a recipe. Though I am going to include one, I truly mean this. Just make your favorite meatball recipe cocktail size (or use store bought frozen I am not here to judge) and then pick your poison – crockpot or sauce pan. After that it is just a matter of combining equal parts chili sauce and jelly and warming everything up. Super simple but I know some people need a recipe and I get that. So here is an easy one to follow.

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Grape Jelly Meatballs

  • Servings: 8-12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

The classic meatball recipe that was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef
  • 1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 1 12 oz jar chili sauce
  • 1 12 oz jar grape jelly (or 14 oz can of jellied cranberry sauce)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground beef, onion, bread crumbs, egg, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Shape into walnut size meatballs and place on a baking dish.
  3. Bake meatballs for 25 to 30 minutes.  
  4. In a large sauce pan, over medium heat, mix together chili sauce and grape jelly heat until they form a sauce. 
  5. Add the cooked meatballs and stir until the meatballs are coated and everything is heated through. 
  6. ALTERNATE METHOD: Place the meatballs in a crockpot with the chili sauce and sauce on high for four hours or until everything is heated through and the grape jelly and chili sauce has formed a sauce. This method is perfect for frozen meatballs (homemade or store bought). Switch to the warm setting and you have a great way to keep you meatballs warm during a party.


Sources:

Adams, Edith. “Edith Adams Answers”. The Vancouver Sun. November 28, 1979.

Brandt, Linda. “Set in the Sixties: Eat Like the ‘Mad Men’ at your party”. Herald-Tribune. July 30, 2008.

Brownstone, Cecily. “Meatballs for Party”. Observer Reporter. March 27, 1974.

Burros, Marian and Levine, Lois. Elegant but Easy: A Cookbook for Hostesses. New York: The Macmillian Company, 1967.

“Main Events”. Spartanburg Herald-Journal. July 25, 2003.

Martinson, Suzanne. “Quick, Tasty Party Food is Always Appetizer”. Pittsburgh Post Gazette. December 7, 2000.

Merla, Julia. “The Creative Cook”. Lake Region Times. January 3, 2007.

McFall, Madge. “Taste Secret ‘What’s in the Sauce'”. St. Petersburg Independent. July 5, 1972.

“Meatballs Buffet Dish Tasty, Easy to Make”. The Pittsburgh Press. January 10, 1979.

Robison, Pat. “Cooking For a Family”. The Evening News. September 6, 1972.

Robison, Pat. “These Dips and Sauces Will Please Your Guests”. December 28, 1966.

Sinnett, Mary Jo. “Quick and Easy Meals”. The Times Record. January 17, 2008.

“Summer Specialties…The Winners”. The Spokesman-Review.. June 24, 1962.

Timms, Maude. “Who’s in the Kitchen”. The Herald Independent. May 31, 2001.

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