Economically, the dish shows the new wealth that the Italians gained when they came to America. When they emigrated, they were coming from such poor and poverty stricken areas of Italy. Upon coming to America, these immigrants only had to spend a small portion of their wealth on their food and because of this, their ethnic dish transformed into the spaghetti and meatballs that we know and love.
When a group of people come to a different country, they bring with them their ethnic cuisine and their own style of cooking. However, upon arriving to said different country, these individuals learn that they must make do with the ingredients that are readily available in the new country. This is precisely what happened to the Italians that came to America. According to Serious Eats, the meat dish that most Italians traditionally ate is called “polpettes.” Polpettes are different from meatballs in the sense that they were eaten as a meal by themselves. However, one can say that the polpettes evolved into meatballs when Italian immigrants came to America. Therefore, one can say that the dish spaghetti and meatballs is purely a dish of American design.
According to the Smithsonian, from the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s, about 4 million Italians migrated to the United States. The majority of these immigrants were coming from Southern Italy, where political and economic circumstances left the cities rather impoverished and poor. Therefore, to escape these harsh realities in Italy, an Italian Diaspora resulted. When the Italians from that area came to the United States, they gained this new found wealth. In Italy, people spent up to 75% of their income on their food while in the United States, this same ethnic group only spent 25% of their income on food. Because of this drastic change, people were buying a lot more food than they previously were. The food that these new immigrants decided to splurge on, was of course, meat. Rather than it being a luxury food like it used to be to these people, it became an important factor in Italian American cuisine. Because beef was available now, it became the meat of choice for the Italian American’s and that’s how polpettes evolved into the meatballs that we see today. Since only certain ingredients were found in America, the Italians adjusted their ethnic dish into what we now know as meatballs.
The question then becomes, if polpettes were eaten as a dish by themselves, then where and how did spaghetti become associated with meatballs? The answer is simple. The Smithsonian argues that due to the new economic gain for the immigrants, they began splurging on food and as spaghetti was one of the only Italian ingredients that was available in America at the time, they began using more and more spaghetti. However, that is only one theory. Others argue that when Italian immigrants began opening restaurants in America, they created the dish and put both things together to appease the Americans that were now coming to their restaurants. Therefore, the meaning that Spaghetti and meatballs has in this group is that it symbolizes their journey to the United States, and the increased economic opportunity that resulted.