John Wayne’s Meatballs

John WayneWhen I was a boy, my father owned a little cabin cruiser named “Cope”. It was the name the boat came with, but it suited him– and me– just fine, since it is both the emphasized syllable of our last name and a verb my family has always worked very hard to master.

He kept the boat moored at a slip in Newport Harbor in exchange for dental work with one of his wealthier patients. Occasionally, he would take the boat out deep sea fishing. In my memory, however, its sole purpose was to take me to see the opal fish that swam around Catalina Island.

On one of our excursions, my sister took me by the hand and lead me out to the bow of The Cope as my father steered the boat through the harbor in the early morning haze, hugging the watery edges near the houses where people with money and boat slips of their own lived. As we approached one such home, my sister noticed an old man leaning his terrace railing. Pointing at him, she exclaimed, “Hey, that’s John Wayne!” It got his attention.

The most famous movie cowboy in history was standing a few yards from me, sipping coffee in an old burgundy-colored robe. I waved to him and smiled. He waved back. It should have been a simple, brief encounter between a movie star and a five year-old boy except for one, important detail:

He wasn’t wearing any briefs. Or boxers, for that matter.

Sizzling BallsAs he waved back at me, he crouched down on his haunches to get closer to my eye level, as adults often do when responding to friendly advances of adorable children. Unfortunately for him, his robe opened slightly. It was a subtle parting– the material that covered his legs spread wider than it should have, revealing the impression of something bulbous dangling between his thighs. He was clearly unaware of what happened. But it happened. I am certain of it.

I saw John Wayne’s balls.

My first glimpse of another man’s genitalia was from an aged, Oscar-winning icon. I didn’t know what to do with the information, so I filed it away in my memory. It had no scarring or fetishizing impact on my life beyond dreaming about taking baths with Michael Landon (as Little Joe from Bonanza). In these dreams, we wore nothing but our cowboy hats and played with my Fisher-Price house boat in the bathtub.

You do the math.

A few years ago, my sister told me she didn’t remember the incident, which lead me to think my mind had played some voyeuristic trick on me. Was it all in my head? Why would a five year-old make something like that up? I was beginning to distrust my own memory. That is, until life handed me a random moment of confirmation.

One evening at work, a couple was seated at one of my tables ten minutes after our official closing time. I hid my annoyance as best I could. They apologized for being late– their plane flight was delayed and they just got engaged that evening. The woman extended her hand and flashed her newly-won diamond ring. Under the circumstances, there was no way in hell I was going to rush them. I coursed their food and filled their glasses. I left them to enjoy their meal in loving peace.

At the end of the meal, however, I asked them where they flew in from. “Orange County,” the man replied. I told him I was from Anaheim, he told me he was from Newport Beach. And then the woman blurted out something random-sounding, but extremely helpful:

“His grandfather was John Wayne!” He seemed a little embarrassed by the outburst, but she seemed very proud to be marrying into the family.

I told him about how my father kept his boat near his grandfather’s house. I even went so far as to mention that my brother is his grandfather’s current neighbor at Pacific View cemetery. But I made absolutely no mention of genitalia.

I did, however, take the opportunity to get some sort of confirmation of my childhood glimpse.

“I remember seeing your grandfather out on his terrace when I was a kid, sipping coffee and wearing a ratty old burgundy robe.”

His eyes widened. “Oh my god. I remember that robe!” was his nostalgic, but memory-verifying response. I knew I didn’t imagine it.

I may forget names, I may forget faces, but I can tell you one thing: I never forget a naked celebrity. Now please remind me to tell you about the time I woke up to find Clint Eastwood naked.

What is it about me and unclothed famous Western cinematic icons?

John Wayne Meatball Sandwich

I’ve kicked this meatball idea around for ages, but was never certain how to approach it. Which genre to apply to a recipe that is to represent the œuvre of a movie legend? His naval films didn’t seem correct– soaking meatballs in brine just felt wrong. Do I salute his turn as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror by making a Mongolian- inspired dish brimming with carcinogens? That would be in very poor taste and no one would eat it. The Quiet Man-wich? That is an idea too intriguing to leave alone, but it isn’t right for this particular posting.

No, a Western-themed meatball sandwich seemed in order. Rio Bravo-meets-The Alamo. Tex-Mex on white bread. It’s what I imagine cowboys would make if they had a lot of time on their hands to bake sandwich rolls and go cilantro-picking. And, though it’s meatballs we’re talking about, I have done my best to steer clear of anything smacking of Spaghetti Westerns. I’ll leave that for my Clint Eastwood post.

Makes 17 meatballs. 16 regular-sized balls and one that is slightly larger, which my doctor says is perfectly normal.


For the meatballs:

• 1 pound ground beef
• ½ pound ground veal
• ½ pound ground pork
• 2 whole eggs
• 1 cup fresh white bread crumbs soaked in…
• 2 tablespoons of whole milk
• 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
• 3 tablespoons finely minced Anaheim chilies
• 1 ½ teaspoons salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• ½ cup olive oil (for frying)

For the tomato sauce:

• 2 cans of fire-roasted tomatoes (56 oz)
• 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
• 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
• 1 tablespoon ground New Mexico chili powder
• 1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin seed
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
• 2 whole bay leaves
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil

For the sandwich assemblage:

• 8″ sandwich rolls
• Monterey Jack and Cotija cheese (the amount is entirely up to your discretion)
• Cilantro leaves– as many as you like


1. In a food processor, purée tomatoes until a fairly smooth consistency is achieved. Some lumps are to be desired. Set aside.

2.In a large sauté pan (I’m using an 11″ pan, which is able to fit all 17 meatballs), heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and gently cook them until softened (about 3 minutes). Add minced garlic and sauté for 1 minute longer. Next, add tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, then add chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. Keep the sauce at a gentle simmer, covered.

3. To make the meatballs, place all three ground meats in a large work bowl, creating a well in the center into which you will add the eggs, milk-soaked bread crumbs, diced chilies, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly but sparingly with your hopefully-clean hands.

4. To form into uniform balls, it is best to weigh your meat. The specific weight chosen for John Wayne’s meatballs is 69 grams. The reason for this number is obvious and not at all what you are thinking, so you can just stop that right now. John Wayne received an Oscar– his only one– for his 1969 role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. It is the same weight I would give to Maggie Smith’s balls for her performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, should I ever bother to make them.

5. Cup the balls gently in your hands to form, one at a time.When all are nicely shaped, heat 1/2 cup of olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to sizzle, add half of the meat balls to brown– 3 to 4 minutes on each side. When they are as brown as nuts and thoroughly crusty, you may place them into your simmering tomato sauce. Repeat with the other half of the meatballs. AT THIS POINT, ADD ABOUT 3 TABLESPOONS OF HOT COOKING FAT TO THE TOMATO SAUCE. Stir in. Let the meatballs cook in your gently-simmering sauce for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Before you begin to assemble your sandwiches, it is important to grasp the idea that you are essentially making them upside down. Why are you making them upside down? Because that is the best way to make them. Now, if you would please stop interrupting me, we can get onto our lunch much more quickly.

6. Slice your rolls in two. Hollow out the top half of the bread and either discard or eat its innards. Turn on your oven to broil and place rolls under the flames until they are warm and lightly toasted.  Remove from oven.

7. Fill the top half with tomato sauce and a mixture of shredded Monterey Jack and crumbled Cotija cheese. Place this half of bread back under the broiler until cheese is sufficiently melted. Remove from oven.

8. Take two meatballs* and slice them in half. Lay them cut-side-up into the top half of your roll. Cover them with fresh, clean cilantro leaves. Slather the bottom part of your roll with tomato sauce and then place it, sauce-side-down onto your meat-filled top.

9. Invert and enjoy. If you are eating this particular sandwich in private, have fun. However, if you choose to do so in public, make certain to carry with you plenty of napkins. I’d hate to think of the explaining you’ll have to do when someone asks, “What’s that on your chin?”

It is to be avoided.

* I had considered using three meatballs for this recipe, but the third one kept slipping out of the bread. Feel free to stuff your sandwich with as many as you dare.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Celebrities, Meatness, Rants and Stories and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to John Wayne’s Meatballs

  1. Lucy Lean says:

    Oh those childhood memories – so glad you could at least verify some of the parts – or should that be the sum of the parts? 😉

    • I think “some of the parts” does just nicely, thank you. I mean, it was just a little glimpse. Had he ripped open his robe like a dirty trench coat, it would have made for a very different story.

  2. tami says:

    i so needed this post today. hilarious…and so very awesome. the recipe sounds fabulous too…even for this non-meat eater.

    • Thanks very much, Tami. And I am glad I could provide a bit of what you needed. Sadly, I cannot figure out how on earth one could make this sandwich meatless. That just doesn’t sound very John Wayne-ish, does it?

  3. Dana Nahai says:

    Mike, you no less than hit JW’s balls out the park. I did the math. I love it. And I want more, more, more.

  4. Lawrence says:

    What a perfect tale for the day AFTER my birthday! Thank you, Michael.
    (Just 51……..)

    Living where I do (not in California,) I cannot provide a similar story, alas. However, if I ever do see an unclothed Dennis Quaid, I shall email you, Michael, and just you, immediately.

    The recipe sounds good, as well. However, here, veal is in short supply, and pre-ground veal is non-existent.

    • Where do you live that veal is in such short supply? P.C.-land? You can always beef up the pork, so to speak. Dennis Quaid? It might be easier to get his brother to take his clothes off, not that anyone would want to see that. Happy Afterbirthday.

      • Lawrence says:

        Veal is a victim of the righteous way of eating in an academic village like Kent, Ohio, Michael.

        I remain an omnivore just to “annoy” the vegans in my midst. I am all right with vegetarians, but not with vegans.

  5. I can’t stop laughing at this. In fact, I keep re-reading and it gets funnier and funnier each time.

  6. I will never think of John Wayne in quite the same way. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

  7. marla says:

    This post is hilarious…I think. Or maybe a bit scary. Perhaps when JW was younger the flash would have been a bit more appealing. Did not know you grew up in the OC… times I really cannot believe I live here.
    The meatballs however would be great at any time.

    • Yup. Born and bred Anaheimer. Perhaps a flash from a younger JW would have been more appealing, but I would have needed to be much older for that to work, in which case, he would not have waved so enthusiastically at me. I’m glad you liked the post. Thank you for letting me know! xom

  8. This post is so hilarious! ha tell me the thought of telling the story to the grand children passed your mind? I bet it did u devil 😉

  9. Penandra says:

    Michael: Thank you for an absolutely hysterical post . . . unfortunately, I was browsing through some of my favorite blogs while having lunch . . . fortunately, I had some wipes to clean the tea off of my monitor! Like merry Jennifer, I just don’t know that I will ever think of John Wayne in the same way again! 😉

  10. Susan says:

    Hi Michael,

    The question I have is was he wearing his toupee?
    Toupee in place but no boxer shorts ……hmm.

  11. Jay Floyd says:

    I’d be so peeved if John Wayne provided my first glimpse. Really, deeply unfair.

  12. Sis Boom says:

    I too grew up in Newport Harbor and we used to sail our sabots near his house to catch a glimpse of the Duke. He was a frequent sight on his boat the Wild Goose. We’d see him often but never once did I catch a glimpse of his balls. Thanks to you I can now eat them. Its really good work you do Michael.

    • I do what I to help people everywhere, Trevor. Knowing that I have helped someone who was so frequently near The Duke, yet so far out of reach, so to speak, gives me great peace and satisfaction.

  13. HAHA! I love it! I had to read this twice because it just had me laughing so hard. What a memorable (obviously) experience!

  14. Thank you for the memories. And the confirmation of your recollection. Balls. They’re unforgettable, no?

  15. I haven’t had a meatball sandwich in years. YEARS. I will break that tragic trend this week, thanks to you.

  16. Thanks, my dear. Now, if you happen to come across a good meatball recipe, please let me know.

  17. Char says:

    I can’t think of anything witty to say, so I’ll just let you know that I loved this, and that my stomach hurts from laughing!

  18. Wayne Roemhildt says:

    Great story.
    Ahhhh the Duke. My mom was so infatuated with him that she bestowed me with his name.
    I remember when I was 15 and went to stay with my auntie in Dana Point – I flew into John Wayne airport in Orange County…. “Cool!”

    I have a feeling that when we lose Clint, I’ll shed tears for Clint… and makeup for the tears I never shed for one Marion Morrison.

    • I liked Clint Eastwood. I ran the dining room and bar of the camp he belonged to at Bohemian Grove. He was one of the few members who didn’t think dishes magically floated into the kitchen and washed themselves. It should also be noted that my first conversation with him was built around the topic of amoebic dysentery.

  19. Pingback: Classic Flan Recipe | Leite's Culinaria

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