where did ham balls originate

Exploring the Roots of Ham Balls A Delicious Midwest Classic

Ham balls – those irresistible baked meatballs made with ground ham and beef – are a beloved comfort food in many parts of the Midwest. But where did these savory sweet-tart treats originate? In this article we’ll delve into the history of ham balls and uncover the roots of this timeless recipe.

Defining Ham Balls

For those unfamiliar, ham balls are made from a blend of ground cooked ham and ground beef or pork. This mixture is combined with various fillers like breadcrumbs, oats or crackers to help bind it. The meat mixture is then formed into balls, baked in the oven, and finally glazed with a sweet, tangy tomato-based sauce.

The result is a tender, flavorful meatball with the salty savoriness of ham balanced by a slightly sweet, sticky glaze. They make a savory-sweet addition to any potluck or dinner table.

Midwestern Origins

While versions of meatballs exist globally, ham balls as we know them today trace their roots back to the American Midwest. They became especially popular across Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska, where ham was a kitchen staple.

During the early 20th century, Midwestern home cooks sought creative ways to stretch their grocery budget. Ground ham was an affordable way to add meaty flavor. By combining it with beef or pork, families could create a hearty, satisfying meatball recipe that was budget-friendly.

The addition of cheap pantry staples like cracker crumbs or oats helped to further reduce costs while creating a cohesive texture. The tangy sweet glaze took the dish to the next level, adding syrupy flavor.

Over the decades, ham balls became a cherished staple at family gatherings and church potlucks. Generations of Midwesterners have enjoyed this classic comfort food.

Vintage Recipes and Early Origins

Some of the earliest published ham ball recipes can be traced back to community cookbooks from the 1920s-1950s. These cookbooks were often compiled by church groups, clubs or other local organizations. They provide a glimpse into the recipes popular in Midwestern homes at the time.

For example, a recipe for “Ham Balls with Brown Sauce” appeared in a 1939 cookbook from Zion, Illinois. It combines ground smoked ham and ground beef with milk-soaked breadcrumbs, shaped into balls and baked in a brown sugar ketchup sauce.

“Ham Balls De Luxe” was published in a cookbook from the Ladies’ Society of Zion Lutheran Church in Walla Walla, Washington in 1955. This version stuffed the ham balls with grated cheese before baking.

These vintage recipes align with the oral history of ham balls being passed down for generations in the Midwest. They demonstrate that the dish was present and beloved in the region by the early-to-mid 20th century.

The Role of Ham in Midwestern Cooking

To understand the popularity of ham balls, it helps to look at the role ham played in Midwestern cuisine overall. Salt-cured hams were an important early meat source, before refrigeration was common. Smokehouses were ubiquitous on Midwestern farms as a food preservation technique.

Out of necessity, Midwestern cooks became masters at transforming salt-cured ham into myriad dishes. Ham salad, ham and bean soup, ham steak – ham was a versatile staple, especially in cold months when fresh meat was scarce.

When ground ham became affordable thanks to advances in food processing, creative cooks jumped on the opportunity. Combining ground ham with beef or pork allowed them to stretch the meat supply further.

So ham balls came about partially due to the abundance of ham, but also the Midwestern knack for resourcefulness in cooking.

Depression-Era Thriftiness

The Great Depression also contributed to the popularity of ham balls. During the 1930s, families had to make do with very limited resources. Ground ham was an economical choice that allowed them to create hearty meat dishes.

Adding cheap filler ingredients like breadcrumbs or crackers allowed them to extend the ground ham even further. Glazing the ham balls made the inexpensive dish seem special enough for a Sunday supper or holiday meal.

The tradition of combining ground ham with beef and filler ingredients took hold during the Depression years out of thriftiness. The dish continues today thanks to that original resourcefulness – and the delicious flavors, of course!

Wartime Substitutions

World War II also led to some creative substitutions in ham ball recipes. Rationing of beef and pork was common, so cooks would use whatever ground meat they could get their hands on.

Turkey ham emerged as a patriotic protein source. Combining ground turkey ham with beef or pork allowed cooks to keep ham balls on the menu. They also stretched their meat rations further by upping the filler content.

Some 1940s recipes use graham cracker crumbs, oats or mashed potatoes to comprise nearly half the recipe’s volume. This thriftiness resulted in the ham balls we know today – lighter than all-beef meatballs, yet still hearty and satisfying.

Post-War Prosperity

After World War II ended, American prosperity rose in the 1950s. With more disposable income, consumers wanted convenience foods and time-saving recipes.

Manufacturers responded with more pre-packaged foods like crackers, breadcrumbs and sauce mixes. Companies even sold ground ham and pork in conveniently shaped discs for making ham balls!

Brand-name peas, cracker crumbs and sauces replaced homemade in ham ball recipes from the 50s and 60s. But the dishes remained budget-friendly and unpretentious, retaining their Midwest comfort food appeal.

Regional Variations

While ham balls trace mainly to Iowa and the surrounding states, regional variations emerged over time. Cooks in different areas added their own spins based on local tastes and ingredients.

For example, some Nebraskan families add mustard and Worcestershire sauce to the meat mix. Wisconsinites sometimes use beer in the ham ball mixture or glaze. Minnesota cooks may use wild rice as a filler for added crunch.

The glazes also range from sweet with brown sugar or honey to tangy and savory with mustard or vinegar. So while the classic version endures, there are many delightful ham ball twists today.

Famous Recipes

Ham balls have stood the test of time, as evidenced by their inclusion in treasured Midwest cookbooks and restaurant menus. Here are some examples of famous ham ball dishes:

  • Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (Red Plaid): Published in 1930, this cookbook included a simple ham ball recipe combining ground ham, beef, breadcrumbs, egg and milk.

  • Prairie Home Cooking (Judith Fertig): This cookbook preserving prairie recipes has a Classic Ham Balls recipe using sour cream and green onions.

  • Iowa State Fair: The famed fair’s ham ball recipe uses a sweet mustard glaze and a food processor for quick prep.

  • Machine Shed Restaurants: With various Midwest locations, they’ve served classic Ham Balls since 1978.

Ham balls are firmly ingrained in Midwestern cooking culture, with each generation putting their own spin on the comforting recipe.

The Future of Ham Balls

Despite declining pork consumption nationwide, ham balls remain a staple in their Midwest homeland today. They’re a nostalgic throwback dish that conjures cherished memories of family and tradition.

Many online bloggers have shared their recipes and recollections of enjoying ham balls at family reunions or church gatherings. They reminisce about the sweet-savory glaze drizzled over each tender meatball.

Beyond the Midwest, some modern versions use trendy fillers like quinoa or substitute ground turkey for broader appeal. But at their core, ham balls will always be the economical yet delicious staple dreamed up by thrifty Midwestern cooks.

This history illustrates how resourcefulness and tradition can create iconic comfort food. Simple yet satisfying, ham balls are a custom-made meal for the Midwest mentality. Their origins may be humble, but their appeal is eternal.

Ham Balls


Where did ham loaf originate?

It’s thought that the ham loaf recipe originated in Germany and then came to the United States as an oft-made dish in Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch communities. It was a popular menu item at church suppers and lunch counters.

What are ham balls made of?

Ham balls are like meatballs but with a different mixture of ground meats: ground ham, ground beef, and ground pork. The main meat is ground ham. Since ham is a cured cut of pork with a smoky quality, it contains a different flavor than ground pork alone.

Are fareway ham balls precooked?

Ham balls. Ham balls come fully cooked, so all you need to do is warm through prior to serving.

What is ham loaf mix made of?

Make ham loaf mixture: Gently stir together chopped ham, cooked onion, ground pork, egg, breadcrumbs, milk, mustard, and garlic powder in a large bowl until evenly combined.

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