American

A Dish Named "Ham Balls" Almost Ruined My Marriage

July 23, 2018

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.

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Top Comment:
“When RAGBRAI (another Iowa thing) came through our little town of 1800 people, they were directed to our Methodist Church where they were able to get ham balls. Next thing you know, they're telling other riders that they need to come to the church! Those Church ladies were so busy, my mom was one of them!”
— Tanya L.
Comment

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?

This isn’t just a quirky little recipe Matt 'forgot' to mention. This is an integral pillar of Iowan society!

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.

This article was originally published in March 2017, but we're running it again to lighten up your day and because we love it.


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44 Comments

ebf9q August 4, 2018
I was so intrigued by this, I immediately called my Iowa friend, who replied, of course she knew all about this and offered to make me some. I am delighted to report they are delicious.
 
beejay45 August 4, 2018
Reading this reminded me of the many church pot lucks my family participated in when I was growing up. We belong to the Lutheran church, not only that, but the Norwegian Lutheran church. Looking back on it with adult knowledge, it's amazing to me that there were so many Scandinavians in an area that was much more known for its Italians -- huge families of blond Swedes and the less blond Norwegians. ;) It was a fun way to grow up. Church life then was so self-consciously/conspicuously holy, much more casual but with the same 10 Commandments all the same.<br /><br />Thanks for the reminder and for many laughs.
 
Sarah August 3, 2018
I came across this while looking for a ham ball recipe. We just finished RAGBRAI (Iowans know what that is) with my Iowa daughter-in-law. Only one town had ham balls and she was so excited. Unfortunately, they were sold out by the time we rolled in. But when I got back to DC, where I was born and raised and did not eat ham balls maybe on account of being Jewish, but more likely because it's not an east coast thing, the other Iowan in the family told me she never heard of ham balls. So, maybe it's a regional thing in Iowa too. She's from Iowa City so maybe it's a small town thing. My daughter-in-law is from Elgin, a small town in the north-eastern part of the state (the little Switzerland of Iowa) where church dinners and community potlucks were a way of life. Great article!
 
HalfPint July 24, 2018
Miss you lots, @allisonrobicelli. Please write another article...
 
BerryBaby July 23, 2018
Grew up in midwest in the '50's and never heard of Ham Balls. Mom would grind up leftover ham and make an incredible ham spread for sandwiches. Used the hand cranked grinder that attached to the counter. I may give these a try!
 
Tara B. May 12, 2018
I was born in Greenfield and lived in Winterset. My family moved to Muscatine for about 10 years and now I live in North Dakota with my husband and nobody out here knows what ham balls are. I can’t get ground ham or ham loaf at the butcher. But you can sure bet every time we visit my dad in Iowa we stop at Fareway for hammloaf, sweet corn, musk melon and Sterzing potato chips to bring home.
 
merrilee April 28, 2018
I laughed so hard... I am a cali-girl transplanted in Iowa. It was a culture shock to say the least. I had never heard of ham balls until I moved here and started attending church here. What an eye-opening on recipe secrets, I thought my grandma was secretive about her family fruitcake recipe until I tried to pry a copy of a delicious ham ball recipe from a lady at church........ her's was close to the one posted here changes were ritz crackers instead of graham crackers, and only 1c brown sugar instead of 1 1/2cups, and only 3/4cup milk. I don't make them except when it is a potluck dinner, but I had to have the recipe to be a "real iowan" ha ha ha .<br />
 
beejay45 August 4, 2018
You might want to capitalize that "C" in cali-girl. Thought you were saying you were a call girl at first and couldn't see what that would have to do with this. /;)
 
Stephanie P. April 7, 2018
Regional food, I have never had a "ham ball", perhaps it is something I need to try. <br />In Utah, a "scone" is deep fried bread or biscuit dough, slathered with honey butter. No one else outside of Utah seems to eat this delicacy.
 
amanda April 7, 2018
I am laughing out loud!<br />Ham balls seem like something from a state fair... but if the nice people of Iowa have whole events with them I will give them a try. Thanks for the recipe.<br />From Arkansas
 
Kristen April 6, 2018
OMG! So first, I have aunts and uncles in Winterset. I grew up in Iowa and our church routinely made ham balls (we called them ham cones - I checked your recipe against the one in the town centennial cook yams the are exactly the same) for all funeral dinners. I now live in DC, and your description of my home state is spot on.
 
Joanie April 6, 2018
I have lived in western Iowa all my life. I lived just north of I-80 until I graduated high school. After college, I move just south of I-80. (30 miles from where I grew up.). Only then did I discover this wonderful concoction!<br />Of course, I never grew up eating beef and noodles on mashed potatoes with a side of corn until I move there either! (Can you say carb overload?!). But oh so good!!
 
Mary L. April 5, 2018
I’m from Winterset also and know your Aunt Pat and Uncle Jim. Love ham balls! Our recipe is similar. But the best one relies on “ham Loaf”, that specialty ground meat mixture sold only at an Iowa Fareway grocery store! THOSE ham balls are the absolute best!
 
Leslie R. April 5, 2018
Funny! I grew up in central Missouri and Illinois, and have never heard of a ham ball! I thought I’d eaten every potluck dinner recipe there was! Ha! Do you have burgoo in Iowa?
 
Jennifer S. April 5, 2018
Uh not that I'm aware of!
 
Cameron V. April 4, 2018
I was born and raised in Iowa and now live in Brooklyn! This entire article is so perfect. I’m now weeping that I do not have a hamball for “supper” (dinner is at noon in Iowa!)
 
Tanya L. April 4, 2018
Haha! I'm from Iowa, living in Texas. I still make ham balls. When RAGBRAI (another Iowa thing) came through our little town of 1800 people, they were directed to our Methodist Church where they were able to get ham balls. Next thing you know, they're telling other riders that they need to come to the church! Those Church ladies were so busy, my mom was one of them!
 
J C. April 6, 2018
What town? Our United Methodist Church in Villisca sold them during Ragbrai in 2016. Hamball on a stick (basically in a tray with a skewer for eating) with homemade pies. Table after table of pie in the fellowship hall. Sold out completely in a few hours
 
J C. April 6, 2018
Forgot this piece - my favorite memory. A month before Ragbrai we had a church dinner (not usual anymore) with a bunch of people bringing hamball so we could decide which sauce recipe we would use - tomato soup v tomato sauce, etc. Tomato sauce is cheaper and with extra brown sugar tastes as good. Growing up in NW Iowa, I never had these til I moved to Southern Iowa
 
SweetiePetitti April 4, 2018
I’m an Iowa girl and went to horse camp in Winterset all through the 70’s. But my cherished ham ball recipe is from Wisconsin and my great Aunt Evelyn who’d be about 105 now. It’s different and has pineapple juice and ginger. I make them very small and use them as an appetizer! Delicious stuff!
 
David V. April 4, 2018
Ham balls. Yes. Best accompanied by potato chip sandwiches and strawberry pretzel jello.
 
Sue H. April 2, 2018
Thanks for the memory. I'm from the neighboring state of Illinois where we had our own version of ham balls. It consisted of a pound of ground ham from the butcher shop combined with a large can of Chefboyardee spaghetti. The spaghetti was chopped up and mixed into the ham which was then rolled into balls and fried like meatballs. Trust me, they were much better than the broiled ground ham, velveta cheese, onion and mayo burgers on half a white bun.
 
Jennifer S. April 1, 2018
I'm from Iowa and this is not how my mom and grandma do them. No ground beef...what is happening w that? No graham crackers; saltines. Ritz, even. I've seen them done w the tomato based sauce but we don't. Sauce is a vinegar/brown sugar mix w mustard.
 
mosprott April 1, 2018
My grandma’s house always smelled weirdly of cooking cabbage whenever she made hamballs (despite the utter lack of cabbage). She did NOT use grahan crackers - instead, she used maple-flavored instant oatmeal. But that’s Washington, not Winterset...regional variation? Or *genius*?!?