Food

Yes, Somebody Is Actually Making a South Philly Meatball Contest Documentary

"Sometimes a meatball is not just a meatball," says filmmaker and Pew fellow Cheryl Hess.


south philly meatball contest documentary

South Philadelphia filmmaker Cheryl Hess shooting her South Philly Meatball Contest documentary with chef Jennifer Zavala in South Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy Jennifer Zavala).

The next edition of the South Philly Meatball Contest is happening this Saturday outside Taproom on 19th. There will be 25 contestants, including South Philly chef Jennifer Zavala and her controversial vegan meatballs. There will be a panel of judges. And there will be a documentary film crew.

That’s right. Somebody is actually making a South Philly Meatball Contest documentary. And this isn’t just some stoop-sitting South Philly mook with an iPhone. The filmmaker behind the South Philly Meatball Contest documentary is Cheryl Hess. She’s a Temple grad, a Pew fellow, and a documentarian who has previously tackled serious issues such as women’s rights and climate change.

“After reading your article last year about the meatball contest controversy, I had the idea to make a short documentary about it,” Hess told me when she asked if she could come to my house for an interview for the film. “It struck me as a really great way to explore serious themes through a light-hearted topic.”

In case you have absolutely no idea what Hess is talking about, a brief recap. The Taproom On 19th’s South Philly Meatball Contest had been happening for several years, pretty much unnoticed by people outside of South Philly. But last year’s competition erupted in a rather major brouhaha after Zavala had the audacity to enter vegan meatballs in a meatball contest. Some people got very upset. The resulting tumult made it all the way to Fox News.

So Hess has been following Zavala around and talking to people in South Philly about the Great South Philly Vegan Meatball Controversy of 2017. She sent a teaser video to New York’s Tribeca Film Institute over a month ago, and the organization selected her as-yet-untitled documentary as one of six that will compete for a grant of up to $20,000 at the big DOC NYC expo in November. Other contestants delve into light topics like abortion, being an Amish outcast, and literacy.

A screenshot from the teaser video that Hess sent to the Tribeca Film Institute.

Hess doesn’t think that her film is out of place in that lineup. Sure, it’s kind of fun and silly to fight about meatballs. Or, rather, meatless balls. But as Hess sees it, what happened at last year’s South Philly Meatball Contest isn’t really about meatballs. It’s about gentrification. It’s about Old Philly vs. New Philly. It’s about neighborhoods. It’s about tradition. It’s about the fear of the hipsters and their vegan virtues.

“Sometimes a meatball is not just a meatball,” she quips.