Why are Swedish meatballs so much smaller than their American counterparts?

This topic has been knocking around the blogosphere as of late:

I am a longtime reader of MR and there is a question I have been wondering about for a long time.  I was hoping you could share your thoughts on meatball heterogeneity.  My girlfriend made dinner for me and the entree was Swedish meatballs.  I never knew how small their meatballs are.  It seems inefficient to roll all that meat into such tiny balls.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to roll them into big balls like we do in the US?

First, history + hysteresis play a role.  According to Mathistorisk Uppslagsbok by Jan-Ojvind Swahn, the Swedish concept of meatball first appeared in Cajsa Warg's 1754 cookbook.  Yet as late as the early 20th century, beef was still a luxury in Swedish culture, whereas meat was plentiful in the United States.  America had greater access to game in the more moderate climate and also greater grass resources for supporting cows.  The Swedes were also late in benefiting from the refrigerated transport revolution, which started elsewhere in the 1920s and brought more meat to many households.  (This tardiness was due to the concentration of population in a small number of cities, combined with rail isolation from Europe.)  The end result was smaller meatballs, a tradition which has persisted to this day.

On the plane of pure theory, standing behind the lock-in effect is the Ricardian (or should I say Solowian?  Solow is the modern Ricardian when you think through the underlying asymmetries in his model, which ultimately make "capital" non-productive at some margin) fixed factor explanation.  A Swedish meatball recipe usually involves much more dairy than a non-Swedish meatball recipe.  Constant returns to scale do not in general hold for recipes, much less for loosely packed spherical items involving fluids.

Oddly, the extant literature does not seem to have considered these factors.

From the comments: Lennart writes: "Swedish meatballs, having loads of surface that are fried crispy, are much better than other forms of meatballs for that reason alone. Norwegians and Danish have big meatballs, but that's because they are boiled, so there is no crispy-fried surface to maximize (and hence nowhere near as good)."


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