Food History

This Cult-Favorite 1960s Dish Is Still Wildly Popular—But Why?

'Grape jelly' and 'meatballs' sound like they shouldn't belong in the same sentence (let alone recipe!), but they've been beloved in America for decades.

May 18, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

Grape jelly and meatballs. Sounds like two options a random word generator might spit out if programmed to a food setting. They couldn’t possibly go together, flavor-wise. Au contraire. In fact, the grape jelly meatball has been a beloved appetizer since at least the 1960s—and it isn’t going anywhere.

The dish is humble: Toss beef meatballs in a sauce of grape jelly and barbecue or a tomato-based chili sauce—always one prepared sauce, and always grape jelly. Stir in lemon juice, sometimes. Simmer until sticky.

It’s difficult to determine who was the first to create a recipe for grape jelly meatballs, much less document it. In the 1960s, recipes for “cocktail meatballs” appeared in myriad texts, some of which were for a cream-based sauce (similar to Swedish meatballs), others made with ketchup and brown sugar. Many were for grape jelly-based sauce.

Marian Burros and Lois Levine’s 1967 Elegant But Easy Cookbook features “Chafing Dish Meatballs,” where meatballs are plopped, raw, into a pot with 12 ounces of tomato-based chili sauce, 10 ounces grape jelly, and lemon juice. (The mixture is boiled over the stove, then—of course—reheated in a chafing dish). In the revised 1998 edition of the title, the authors chose to leave the recipe unchanged, as it was “probably the most popular hors d‘oeuvre in the book.” They also note one of their recipe testers had developed her own recipe for these meatballs prior to trying theirs, echoing this dish’s popularity at the time.

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“So maybe not so sophisticated, but I've had many an 80s-themed party and these meatballs and that spinach dip, plus the platters of sliced pepperoni with cheese and crackers, all disappear, and everyone love to talk about when these party foods were cool. ”
— strawbaby
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“Cocktail Meatballs” from the 1978 edition of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook features a slightly more creative meatball (parsley and bread crumbs are involved, and they’re browned in shortening first), but the recipe does call for the same amounts of jelly and chili sauce as Burros and Levine’s dish. It also proposes a substitution of cocktail weiners for meatballs as an alternative.

A number of self-published community cookbooks (the first of which in the genre date back to at least the 1860s) also feature recipes for similar meatballs, and given the commonality of such books at the time, were likely the reason so many Americans grew up making grape jelly meatballs. Variations on the same meatball recipe appeared in countless editions of such books; as collections like these were typically put together for charitable fundraising efforts, it didn’t matter particularly if the recipes were unique.

In fact, when I mentioned on my social networks that I was looking for original examples of this recipe, dozens cited a community text. Most mentioned their family makes the meatballs every year around the holidays.

“My mom has a large collection of old school cookbooks… she gets boxes of them at auctions and yard sales,” Lee Kalpakis, a Brooklyn-based recipe developer, told me. Kalpakis recalled a recipe for “Pungent Meatballs” from one of her favorite books in the collection, In Good Taste, published in 1987. This version calls for barbecue sauce, grape jelly, and lemon juice. “The idea of meatballs swimming in something so sweet is a little jarring, but honestly, who am I to judge? Sugar enhances flavor. Plus, fruit and meat historically work well together,” added Kalpakis, noting dishes like the pineapple and pork of al pastor, and Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce. “A grape jelly meatball is kind of the same flavor profile, Betty Crocker-style.”

And nearly everyone I spoke with recently knew these meatballs as a slow-cooker recipe, though none of the early documented recipes I found used the machine. Slow cookers first became available to the American consumer in the 1950s; it wasn’t until the the early 1970s that the company was purchased and rebranded as “Crock-Pot,” after which its popularity grew exponentially. Presumably as the slow cooker became such a favored kitchen tool, home cooks even transitioned away from the chafing dish traditional for their favorite cocktail meatballs.

“This recipe may date us, because it’s a classic from the early ‘60s,” write Linda Rehberg and Lois Conway about “Sweet and Sour Meatballs” in their 2005 book, Slow Cooker Magic. “But it never fails to be a crowd-pleasing appetizer.” Rehberg and Conway recommend using cooked frozen meatballs to speed up the process.

However popular in decades past, the recipe's origin and history do not explain why the dish remains so popular today. For that, we can thank the Internet. A search for “grape jelly meatballs” yields 1.3 million results; each recipe is pretty much identical. Google Trends shows a near-vertical spike of searches for the recipe every year during the month of December, and another small rise in early February (but more on that in a bit).

The resurgence in the popularity of slow-cookers in the past few years is hard to ignore, much of it likely owed to the fact that while many people want to revive elements of decades prior (say, the dinner party), the average day is busier than ever before. The slow cooker presents the option of a dish that cooks for hours but is completely hands off.

Historically, a crowd-feeding appetizer requiring little work certainly fits the bill for holiday parties; it’s also checked the boxes for Super Bowl gatherings. In 2018, NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. partnered with Welch’s on a YouTube video, in which the athlete and his mother prepare their “Game-Day Grape Jelly Meatballs. Their recipe is simple: frozen cocktail meatballs, grape jelly, barbecue sauce, and an optional addition of hot sauce tossed together in a slow cooker.

After all this, you might be still left wondering—which is the superior sauce for grape jelly meatballs, chili or barbecue? For that, you’ll have to make the cult-favorite dish yourself.

Did you grow up loving slow-cooker grape jelly meatballs? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. Her writing has appeared in TASTE, The Strategist, Eater, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish and Basically. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl. You can follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

33 Comments

Janet M. June 22, 2020
I grew up with this always popular appetizer. It was always one of the first things to disappear from the buffet table. I remember it with various types of jelly--red plum, grape, apricot, and even orange marmalade--but always Heinz chili sauce. I think cocktail sauce was a little too spicy for my midwestern community--that horseradish in it. I know Heinz still makes chili sauce, but none of my local supermarkets has it.
 
Allison June 20, 2020
1960's Brooklyn/Queens- the party dish on most tables was "Swedish Meatballs". Sauce base: grape jam/jelly and the easily available Heinz Cocktail Sauce. No crock pot or slow cooker involved.
 
Val G. June 20, 2020
Interesting-I grew up eating these at parties but we always made them with plum jelly (or jam) and chili sauce. Makes me wonder if someone in the family made it that way once ‘cause that’s what they had in the pantry and got such positive responses that it kept going that way!
 
Billie L. June 20, 2020
When we did not have grape jelly we would use jellied cranberry sauce! Very good!!! Go perfect with the heinz chili sauce!


 
KS June 19, 2020
Good grief. I'm old enough, and I've even been reading cookbooks for pleasure for decades, but I've never heard of grape jelly meatballs. A zillion people can't be wrong, but they sound very unappealing. Interesting article, though!
 
Billie L. June 19, 2020
You really must try them, you will see why trillions of us just love these!!!
 
FrugalCat May 27, 2020
oh, and if you are serving them from a plate (like in the pic above, with skewers) and not out of the chafing dish with a spoon, here's a trick- Put a pretzel stick in each one instead of a toothpick. That way you wont have a bunch of errant skewers or picks around the party area.
 
ruth K. June 20, 2020
Very clever! I'll try it next time, if ever there is one.😀
 
pj S. May 27, 2020
It is not Christmas Eve without these meatballs. I was introduced to them by my MIL decades ago and now we carry on the family tradition of serving them during the holidays. You cannot use frozen meatballs as they are just not the same. Her recipe which is the one I still follow, calls for dry bread crumbs, minced dried onion, parsley, and milk to be added to the meat. The only thing i do differently is to cook them in the oven instead of frying them before adding the jelly/chili sauce mixture. No matter how many i make it's never enough!
 
J May 22, 2020
We have this recipe in the teacher's lounge at my school- someone always brings it on potluck day! Our school was built in 1973 and we still use the chafing dishes someone donated long ago-
 
Marianne May 22, 2020
In Wisconsin at Packer tailgating parties, there are versions of this with sauerkraut added as an additional ingredient.
 
Debbie B. May 22, 2020
Another similar recipe is to use grape jelly and 7 up with smoked sausage. Just cut the sausage into bite size pieces and sauté with a 1/2 jar of Grape jelly and a can of 7up.
 
Pamela F. May 21, 2020
I think a lot of our fondness for these dishes has to do that we grew up with them. i don't remember having these in southeast Louisiana. My favorite, and the favorite of everyone i know is Rotel dip. melt a can of rotel with a big block of Velveeta, yum. right back to my childhood.
 
Billie L. May 22, 2020
I still make that one also!!! remember my father making it in the crockpot! We would use the leftover next day as a Sandwich spread!!
 
Mary H. May 21, 2020
Another favorite from that era was grape or cherry jelly mixed
with mustard. Add meatballs or lil smokies. Wonderful flavor variety.
 
Billie L. May 21, 2020
I have been making for years! I love when I take them to a party or family gathering and people say wow can I have the recipe, or family says so glad you brought these!! They are that good!!!
 
Katekooks May 21, 2020
I always have some variety of chili sauce on hand to make shrimp sauce ... you know with lemon juice, worchestershire sauce and horseradish. Can't have fried shrimp without it. I have never heard of these and I am old! Guess I'll have to try.
 
magictrunk May 21, 2020
My Mom made a variation on this using canned cranberry sauce. I think the sweet and tart qualities you get with cranberry sauce made this even better. Just thinking about this makes me crave them - they are so totally addictive. This variation of the sauce also works great on chicken or you guessed it turkey. I use it as a glaze and also baste with it during roasting. The sauce creates a beautiful finished look and flavor to roast chicken or turkey beast. I always serve it with a bit of reserved sauce on the side. This could also work on baked chicken wings.
 
Doris S. May 21, 2020
Cranberry sauce sounds good; not as sweet. If I ever feel compelled to make them again, I’ll try it.
 
mdelgatty May 22, 2020
So is the cranberry sauce mixed with chili sauce?
 
rk June 19, 2020
My mom used current jelly, a little less cloying than grape jelly, with Heinz chili sauce.
 
Toddie June 19, 2020
You beat me to it! I always use cranberry sauce. I first used this as a glaze for chicken and, when I went to make the meatballs at Christmas and realized I did not have grape jelly but I did have a few cans of cranberry sauce, I made the swap. I much prefer it - not nearly so sickly sweet.
 
Pomme D. June 19, 2020
I have one with currant jelly and Dijon mustard from an old ‘diet’ cookbook— it’s actually pretty piquant.
 
ruth K. June 20, 2020
My mother used guava jelly for the same reason. This wss also a great sauce for sliced tongue. I still have her chafing dish which I use for cocktail franks in the same sauce. Always the first to go!
 
David R. May 21, 2020
I make a version using chili sauce and jellied cranberry sauce. I coat short ribs in a little flour, brown them on both sides and then immerse them in the sauce mixture and bake in the oven at 350 degrees until they are fall off the bone...over buttered egg noodles..these are delicious.
 
strawbaby May 21, 2020
I would like to say I grew up on these, but I found them in the early 80s when I was newly married for the first time. I thought they were so sophisticated. You know, like spinach dip? So maybe not so sophisticated, but I've had many an 80s-themed party and these meatballs and that spinach dip, plus the platters of sliced pepperoni with cheese and crackers, all disappear, and everyone love to talk about when these party foods were cool.
 
Kelly L. May 21, 2020
we called these "mom's famous meatballs" when I was a kid and they're still one of my favorite things. I wish I could figure out how to make a low or no sugar version, as diabetes prevents me from eating them now and I really miss that taste of my childhood.
 
Doris S. May 21, 2020
In the ‘70’s a friend made these and we loved them. She wouldn’t give me the recipe, but I received it from a recipe chain letter shortly after she said no. It’s pretty much like the one here, though I browned mine and then baked in the oven. I used Heinz chili sauce and grape jelly. I haven’t made them in years, much to my husband’s disappointment
 
Kelly L. May 21, 2020
yup. That's what we used too. I don't know what anyone would use Heinz chili sauce for apart from these meatballs, lol
 
Doris S. May 21, 2020
😊It’s the inly thing I used the Heinz chili sauce for.
 
Marla K. May 21, 2020
I used to make these way back in the late '70s, in a Crock Pot for the endless parties we used to have back then. But not with grape jelly. BBQ sauce, yes. But apricot preserves instead of grape jelly. If memory serves, they were absolutely delicious and everyone loved them.
 
Mickey F. May 18, 2020
June, 1960: my mother and grandmother made and froze hundreds of these in the run-up to my bas mitzvah party. If my memory serves, they used ketchup instead of chili sauce. Mom lost the recipe, and I was wistful for decades until I found a close equivalent in “Feed Me Bubbe.” What a wonderful nostalgic pleasure.