There is no time like the present to preserve the past. Annie Malsam is doing just that as she collects family recipes, starting with holiday favorites. The very first recipe she gathered was hamballs: a large-family, comfort-food staple, potluck-mainstay you know and love if you’re lucky enough to be from Iowa. Or like Annie, have an Iowan grandmother.
“The first time I made the ham balls was for Easter. I didn’t go back home for the big family gathering that year and wanted to feel that connection,” she says. This recipe had an especially strong connection to Annie’s grandmother, Iola. Iola’s father, Erik August Ferdinand Johnson, came over from Sweden by himself as a teenager in the late 1890s. He settled in Iowa where Iola grew up. She stayed there and raised eight children. She also made a lot of ham balls, which were a family favorite for dinner.
The origins of ham balls
Annie wasn’t certain about the recipe’s origins. A little digging (thanks to the Kirschner Collection at the Magrath Library and some local cookbook collectors) quickly pointed to ham balls as being a regional specialty of Iowa. Nebraskans also make a claim to the dish, but Iowans proudly plant their state flag dead center in a 9” x 13” pan of ham and ground beef meatballs.
Iowa food historian Darcy Maulsby declares firmly, ”Ham balls are the perfect Iowa potluck treat!” It’s not surprising pork plays a starring role in a dish from Iowa. Germans and Danes were major immigrant groups that settled in the state. The cuisine of both cultures features pork prominently and even now, Germany and Denmark are in the world’s top ten for pork consumption per capita. Iowa is also the nation’s largest pork producer. In 2021, the hog population of Iowa was 23.8 million. The state with the second largest number? Minnesota, with a mere 9 million hogs.
Make sure you use ham
Now, a few words about the ingredients. This recipe calls for ground ham. Not ground pork. If you live in the Minneapolis metro area, you can call Ingebretsen’s meat market, 612-729-9331, and order ground ham. Meat market manager Steve Dahl asks that you request the meat 48 to 72 hours ahead. (April 11 noon update: The meat market has taken all the special orders they can fill for Easter week. If you’d like ground ham for next week, they will be happy to take your order.) If you live in Iowa, your favorite butcher may have a ham ball mixture already prepared. For everyone else, your choice is to ask your butcher to grind some ham or to do it yourself. A home meatgrinder or appropriate blades on your food processor work fine.
Bake some for now. Freeze some for later.
This recipe freezes well. You can make a large quantity and form the meatballs. You can freeze them at this stage, or bake them, then freeze. Darcy Maulsby recommends heating the baked-then-frozen meatballs in a crockpot.
Spice it up with graham crackers
Grandma Iola’s recipe calls for graham crackers. Annie says, ”I accidentally bought cinnamon graham crackers, which gave them a bit of extra spice that first year.” Cinnamon complements the flavors in the sauce well. So that was a happy accident, and one you may want to replicate. I opted, deliberately, for Anna’s Swedish Thins with Ginger, which also worked nicely.
Making the meatballs
Annie forms the meatballs to 1 ½” in diameter. I made them 1”, which is one tablespoon of the meat mixture. Darcy Maulsby sent me her favorite version of the ham balls recipe, made by her friend, Val Plagge, also from Iowa. It is very similar to Grandma Iola’s, but it calls for much larger meatballs. Val says, “I form them by cupping my hands together to roll a ball. They are big enough my kids usually start with just half of a ham ball and get another half if they are still hungry.” Interestingly, the baking time is the same. Go with your personal preference. Val suggests adding the milk a quarter cup at a time, up to the full cup and a half. The genius of this recipe is its flexibility.
One cup or two?
This is a food “of an era,” an era when sugar was used without any worries about what it would do to blood glucose levels. You would very likely need the energy for the evening milking and other chores, anyway. Annie says, “When I saw the 2.5 cups of sugar in the recipe, I cut it in half.” One of the recipe-testers did the same and her family enjoyed the dish. I, however, was a purist and used the full two and a half cups of brown sugar. I also made the pleasant discovery that once the pan cooled, I could pull the baked-on sauce from the inside corners and eat it just like a caramel. A grown-up caramel with an intense sweet-and-sour taste, but a caramel none the less. I may just have the next state fair food if I devise a way to mass produce it. Adjust the sugar to your taste. The sauce does its job at 1 ¼ cups or 2 ½. (Update: Annie made her Easter 2022 sauce with 1 cup brown sugar and 1/4 cup maple syrup – an excellent idea all around.)
Colonel Mustard in the dining room with the measuring spoons
The final ingredient you can adjust to taste is the dry mustard. Val Plagge suggests 1 teaspoon. Grandma Iola puts in a bold two tablespoons. I am a member of Team Iola. The generous dose of mustard gives zing to the dish and brings out the best in the ham. Those of you who like the middle road can start with a tablespoon and adjust up or down as you like.
And now, for the side dishes
I asked Annie what side dishes her family usually served with ham balls. One was a carrot and bacon dish (included in pdf form at that end of the post) . The other, which Annie enthusiastically endorsed, was cheesy hash browns. She says, “The original family recipe from my aunt had browning cornflakes in oleo.” Annie is more likely to use browned Honey Bunches of Oats. I’m going to put in a vote for au gratins with crispy onions. Darcy recommends cheesy potatoes in general. And now, Dear Reader, I will open this forum to you, especially if you are from Iowa. What IS the ideal cheesy potato accompaniment to ham balls? In the spirit of a potluck, and of keeping family recipes alive, would you please share your recipe in the comments section?
Ham Balls from Grandma Iola
1 lb ground ham
1 lb ground beef
1 cup crushed graham crackers or ginger snaps
½ cup milk
1 can tomato soup
¾ cup vinegar
2 ½ cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp dry mustard
Mix and shape into balls.
Place in a 9×13 baking dish and cover with sauce.
Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.