The Depression-Era Dish That Inspired My Family’s Favorite Thanksgiving Recipe

Mom's tomato soup meatballs are tender, tangy, and almost a century in the making.

November 26, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Amanda Widis.

I've always wondered where my mom's tomato soup meatballs came from. It's the only recipe we make religiously every year for Thanksgiving, but each time I asked her which family member passed it down (or at the least, which cookbook she found it in), I never got a solid answer—as if it had appeared out of thin air and into our kitchen.

The closest I ever got to an explanation was, "I think I might have gotten the idea from the back of Campbell's tomato soup can." To be fair, the back of a box (or in this case, can) is the source of inspiration for many passed-down family recipes, from pumpkin pie to yellow cake.

It turns out, though, that the idea of tomato soup and meatballs goes all the way back to the Great Depression.

Porcupine meatballs were a favored budget-stretching staple thanks to a short list of basic ingredients: ground beef; onion; uncooked long-grain rice (which gives the meatballs their trademark look and stomach-lining density); salt and pepper; and canned tomato soup or sauce (one of the earliest known examples of the recipe, from 1918, calls simply for canned tomatoes). The pan-seared meatballs were given a long simmer in a saucy mix of the tomatoes, water, and perhaps a dash of cayenne for heat or Worcestershire sauce for vinegar-sweet brightness.

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“My 1970’s era stove top pressure cooker book had a recipe for porcupine meatballs and we ate them often when I was in college. Don’t think there was tomato soup but probably tomato sauce. I loved them. ”
— lisa123

This decidedly simple, family-friendly dish maintained its popularity throughout the middle of the 20th century, and well into the 1970s, when it made an appearance in the Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook. The 1948 Hunt's Tomato Sauce ad below makes a compelling case for its longevity: "Fun to make—Fun to eat!" Not to mention, all that flavor for just "a few cents a serving."

Exactly how this Depression-era classic inspired my family's favorite Thanksgiving tradition is less clear. Mostly because my mom's recipe calls on a few extra flavors you likely wouldn't have seen paired up together back then: ground turkey, Italian breadcrumbs, minced garlic, soy sauce, ground ginger, and half a cup of tomato soup.

Somehow, though, it works. Seasoned breadcrumbs and egg act as the binding agents, garlic and ginger provide a warm, biting kick, and soy sauce adds a complementary salty sweetness. The creaminess of the tomato soup is the unifier here—it not only helps to round out those punchy spices, but also gives the meatballs unparalleled tenderness.

Growing up I loved squishing together the ingredients in a bowl with my hands, afterwards carefully molding each meatball into as perfect a sphere as possible. It was the Thanksgiving preparation I looked forward to most, just me and my mom in the kitchen.

Unlike the method for most porcupine meatballs, these are baked to doneness in the oven before being added to the tomato sauce mixture. My mom's mixture is quite different, too: Along with the tomato soup goes more minced garlic, ground ginger, and soy sauce, as well as light brown sugar. It's tangy, lightly sweet, and has a can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it quality that makes you want to test spoonful after spoonful as it warms up on the stove.

You can serve the cooked meatballs in the sauce straight out of the oven, but the best thing to do is make the meatballs a day ahead of Thanksgiving and let them soak in the fridge overnight. It's just one of those dishes that tastes better the next day.

You might be tempted to stick a toothpick in each meatball (to make it easier for people to grab one or two at the appetizer table). My mom is adamant, however, in her belief that they not be served this way, but rather in a casserole dish with a large serving spoon for scooping up extra sauce. Like the meatballs' origin story, her reasoning is a bit of a mystery. I guess "Because I said do" will have to suffice.

What's your favorite family recipe to serve at Thanksgiving? Tell us in the comments below!
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Erin Alexander

Written by: Erin Alexander

Erin Alexander is the Managing Editor of Food52.


FrugalCat May 27, 2020
My husband's grandmother used to make these all the time. I should give them a try.
Debby December 6, 2019
My favorite childhood food! My mother also made hers in a pressure cooker, but there were always quartered potatoes in the sauce! Never knew if they were added to the cooker or done separately
Joan V. November 28, 2019
Porcupine meatball have a Russian origin.
lisa123 November 27, 2019
My 1970’s era stove top pressure cooker book had a recipe for porcupine meatballs and we ate them often when I was in college. Don’t think there was tomato soup but probably tomato sauce. I loved them.