A girl from Ohio meets a boy from Iowa and they get married.
I’m that girl, and although Hubby and I both moved to California at a young age, those Midwestern roots didn’t die. My childhood included brightly-colored Jello with fruit floating in it, scalloped potatoes from a box, white bread and orange cheese. These were staples of many Midwestern families, mine included. But I have yet to meet anyone, from anywhere, who has heard of Hamballs, which I consider the most important remaining vestige of our family Midwest food heritage. Grandma Grace may not have invented them, but I haven’t found a single recipe for Hamballs in my vast collection of cookbooks, including the spiral-bound community cookbooks from cities across the United States. All I know is that Grandma Grace introduced them to my life by making them with love and serving them at her family gatherings.
Grandma Grace was the beautiful, loving mother of my Father-in-law, and Grandma Grace cherished her family. She kept in close touch with her sisters and their husbands, her nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren and on down the line. Hubby has fond memories of his grandmother, growing up by her side in early childhood and spending months a year with her when she visited California during his teens. Hubby remembers a few important things about his grandmother: She was one of three sisters; She always wore pretty, silky nightgowns to bed; And she cooked Hamballs.
Hubby, his Uncle, and my Father-in-law thought Grandma Grace’s Hamballs were the most delicious food on earth. From what I gather, Hamballs were only made on special occasions and were time-consuming to prepare so Grandma Grace was the designated Hamball cooker, willing to put in the time for these men she loved so dearly. Grandma’s Hamballs required hours of basting and careful watching to get them caramelized just right while remaining moist and succulent inside. Hubby recalls hanging around the kitchen while the Hamballs were baking to make sure he could get the first taste straight out of the oven, although he had to fight off his Dad and Uncle for this privilege. I was very curious about this special food that the family men seemed to love. While I had been to many gatherings with Grandma Grace during my early years in the family, it was not usually in Iowa so I never had the pleasure of tasting Grandma’s legendary Hamballs.
In the Fall following Grandma Grace’s death in July 1996, I asked the family if I could get a copy of the Hamball recipe. I thought it would be nice to serve them as a tribute to Grandma Grace when all the relatives gathered at our house for Thanksgiving. They gave me the recipe without hesitation, along with cautionary tales about how no one could make them like Grandma Grace. They said she must have had some secret because she was the only one who could make them JUUUST right. They thought maybe it was her special Hamball pan but no one seemed to remember what pan it was, or even what type of pan it was, so all I had to go on was the recipe, typed and faxed by her granddaughter.
While they were all so kind, I sensed that the family was enormously doubtful that I could produce a worthy Hamball. But regardless of the concerns, I thought it was worth the effort to honor Grandma Grace. Sometimes, or perhaps a lot of the time, I can be a bit stubborn. Just the fact that they weren’t sure I could do it, made the challenge even more exciting. We invited a crowd to join us for Hamballs the night before Thanksgiving. And while the family was happy and grateful for my gesture, but the unsaid words were still lingering in the air. They didn’t believe that my Hamballs would even resemble their revered Grandma Grace’s Hamballs. I’m sure they all knew that we would make a toast to Grandma Grace, politely eat the mediocre Hamballs, (with a few men having tears in their eyes missing Grandma Grace and her irreplaceable cooking) and that would be the end of Hamballs forever.
The week before the relatives arrived, I asked Hubby what was served with Hamballs so I could plan the dinner. He indignantly answered “nothing.”
I questioned it a few more times and the answer was always the same. Hamballs were served all on their own. It didn’t seem quite right but I didn’t want to completely mess up this time-tested family tradition so I trusted him. What was I thinking? I should have known better than to trust his childhood memory regarding entertaining. I think I actually just served huge piles of Hamballs, with a small little side dish of vegetables as an afterthought because I realized too late how crazy it was to serve just a plate of meat for dinner.
I discovered that night, with much embarrassment, that everyone other than the three aforementioned men regard Hamballs as the meat portion of a meal that definitely requires other dishes to make it complete! Regardless, Hamball Night was a success, or at least the Hamballs were edible and the relatives gave me credit for trying, everyone finally realizing it wasn’t even about the Hamballs. Grandma Grace smiled down upon me, her secret revealed, happy knowing that her Hamballs, and the gathering of her family, would live on.
Hamball Night has been an important tradition in our family for nearly two decades now. It is common for us to have more guests on Hamball Night than on Thanksgiving and some family members like Hamball Night MORE than Thanksgiving. Relatives have actually come from out of town for Hamball Night and departed on Thanksgiving Day!
Our tradition includes expanding our “family” by inviting friends to share Hamballs with us. Many first-time guests think they are coming to HANDball night and are reluctant to ask what is in a Handball. One friend (You know who you are, Amanda!) thought we were going to play handball as part of the tradition and wondered if she needed any special attire for the evening.
Most importantly, once a year Hamballs are made in large quantities with love and memories. And the only secret to perfection is to make them in honor and celebration of family. I think Grandma Grace would be proud of the tradition she inspired.
“Somehow the food always tastes better when you are having fun.” – Cynthia Spivey
Grandma Grace’s Hamballs
1 lb of ground meat, 1/3 ham and 2/3 ground chuck
1/2 to 1 cup crushed soda crackers or fine bread crumbs
1 egg, beaten
small amount of milk (2 tsp)
1/4 to 1/2 cup of brown sugar (packed)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup vinegar (may mix light and dark) (I use cider or wine vinegar)
1/4 tsp mustard (not dry) (I use Dijon)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the meat, crackers, egg and water together well. Roll into balls the size of a golf ball and place in a pan. 1 pound should make 10-15 balls.
Mix together sugar, water, vinegar and mustard for basting sauce and pour over meatballs in pan.
Bake for up to two hours, basting every twenty to thirty minutes until brown and caramelized.
Note: This recipe is for one pound of meatballs. For Hamball Night, I usually make 9 pounds of meatballs.