My husband, like me, was raised in Brooklyn, but he is second-generation. His parents emigrated from a foreign land I knew very little about, with lots of white people, farms, and Walmarts: Iowa.
Twelve years into our marriage, I still haven’t been there, but through family visiting us in New York and the wonders of Facebook, I’ve learned so much. I understand that Iowa isn’t just some idyllic wondrous fantasyland that exists to give us hope for a more beautiful world, like Mayberry or Canada. And I’m proud to say that I’ve scaled what I feared was insurmountable: believing that my husband’s family is actually that nice. These people like each other so much that they have had a massive family reunion every single year since 1918. We’ve met 4th, 5th cousins we knew nothing about, and you know what? They are really nice.
Grandma Flossie would send us handwritten notes about the goings on in her garden, and stories about all the different birds she’d see in her yard. Aunt Pat posts dispatches from the Democratic Club of Madison County, and voices her displeasure about the current state of affairs with a politeness and integrity I know for certain that I will never be capable of. Uncle Jim owned a pharmacy with an It’s a Wonderful Life–style soda fountain, smack dab in the middle of Main Street in Winterset, Iowa: population 5190, covered bridge capital of America, and birthplace of John Wayne.
Know what it’s like growing up a Brooklyn Italian? It’s as dramatic as a goddamn Scorsese movie. There are the Sunday dinners that end in screaming and tossed plates, the incessant shit talking behind the backs of the people you love, and—marone—the vendettas! No Italian family is complete without one vendetta against a close relative, and more than one convoluted revenge plot, because somebody's got a better recipe for Sunday Sauce than another. You think it’s normal until you get to know salt-of-the-earth folks from the Midwest—people you’ve always mistrusted because they smile and say hello when you see them in the street. Who does that? Do they think they’re better than me, acting all nice?
I still have a long way to go before everything Midwestern (state fairs, milk with dinner, craft projects on Pinterest) makes total sense, but I’ve made tremendous progress—climbed many mountains of Jell-O, so to speak. I’ve conquered my fear of canned cream of mushroom soup, and discovered that it makes a pretty bangin’ meatloaf—another thing I’ve learned to love. I’ve crocheted things very poorly, though I did make a beautiful pair of nipple tassels for my father-in-law one Christmas. Not kidding about that. Iowans may seem like innocent Christian Donna Reed throwbacks, but dear white bread Jesus, can they tell a dirty joke. I’ve blushed a more than a few times, and I’ve been to Cancun.
But there was one revelation that went far beyond nipple tassels and gelatin, one that caused such an epic fight between Matt and I that I still hold a twinge of resentment to this day. We were nearly a decade into our relationship when I spied this Facebook post from Uncle Jim: “Three more trays of ham balls to bake before the annual Hamball Dinner at St. Paul Lutheran. Can’t wait for tomorrow night!”
Ham ball dinner. Ham. In balls. They are not just a dish—oh, no no no, ham balls are an event. You get all the people in your church together, everyone makes ham balls, and then you walk around the church basement sampling all of them. This isn’t just a quirky little recipe Matt “forgot” to mention. This is an integral pillar of Iowan society! So yes, Matt. How is it that in all our years of marriage, I have never heard of ham balls before?!
Ham balls are meatballs…..made of ham. I’ve made balls of beef, turkey, lamb, seitan, lentils—how had I never thought of ham? It’s so simple and so genius. The recipe is something that seems to be straight out of a World War II rationing cookbook, and was probably overlooked for decades because of hideous vintage food photography. But as I held Uncle Jim’s recipe in my hands, I realized that I had found treasure, a priceless heirloom that had been tucked away in a dusty corner of the attic. If I brought these balls onto Antiques Roadshow, I’d make a bazillion dollars.
After a nice long bout of screaming and threats of divorce on the grounds of willful neglect and fraud, a phone call was made and Uncle Jim sent over his recipe post-haste. The recipe makes enough for a church group—or breakfast, lunch and dinner for a woman who is making up for lost time.
For the meat
- 1 pound ground ham
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 cup milk
- 1 sleeve crushed graham crackers
- 1 egg
For the sauce
- 1 can tomato soup
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
- 1/3 cup white vinegar
- 2 tablespoons dry mustard
Have your loved ones ever kept amazing family recipes from you? Tell us about it in the comments!