Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Sauerkraut Balls Are an Ohio Holiday Tradition You Need to Try

What is a ball but an invitation to transcend? Hush puppies. Scotch eggs. Arancini. Name me a culture, and I’ll toss you a ball that can serve as its culinary avatar. Fried balls, as an institution, make practical sense, especially when it comes to hors d’oeuvres: They’re portable, flavorful, and easily shared. But more than all that, fried balls are often rooted in the collective taste memory. They become a bite of heritage. And the ball that’s become most meaningful to me? The sauerkraut ball — northeastern Ohio’s answer to Proust’s madeleine.

Fifteen years ago, in my husband’s hometown of Akron, otherwise known as the Rubber City of America, I tasted my first sauerkraut ball. It was a dull winter, in which gray smeared the palette of the streets and slush left articulated streaks on the tops of snow boots. We were newly engaged and making our rounds, accepting excited congratulations from friends and relatives. At some point, we convened at Larry’s Main Entrance, referred to simply as Larry’s by its coterie of regulars, including my husband, who passed many an evening of his misspent bachelorhood partaking in the weekly sirloin special.

Larry’s is one of those locally owned joints with a smallish, dim interior smelling of Guinness and Friday fish fries. There’s recessed paneling in the ceiling and a line of black-and-white photographs that immediately signal a sort of earthy permanence. It’s a restaurant that has seen things: the turn of many seasons, political upheavals, dislocating grief, and abundant celebration. I’d been to many such places in my years; inexplicably, their worn-in hominess often makes me feel lonely. Those are the places that divide patrons into two categories: regulars, and everyone else. No one likes to be everyone else.

I saw my husband slipping into familiar mannerisms, slinging his arm over the back of a booth, calling out pleasantries to the barback. He introduced me to the servers and pointed out the menu’s beacon offering: the almighty sauerkraut ball.

“Tell me all about this ball,” I insisted.

My in-laws, lifetime residents of Akron, confessed that they didn’t know exactly why they were so popular. Sauerkraut balls had been around for decades, and most families have a go-to recipe clipped from an old newspaper column or inherited on gravy-smudged index cards. The typical manifestation is a tennis-ball-sized morsel of sauerkraut and protein — ham, bratwurst, or sausage — breaded and deep-fried, then served with a creamy sauce. In Akron Family Recipes, author Judy Orr James devotes a whole section of the book to sauerkraut balls. She recounts that when Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous first tasted a sauerkraut ball, he said, “It’s very, ah, Akron.”

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I wondered aloud: Did they enjoy the sauerkraut ball? Shrugs all around. It wasn’t a matter of enjoyment, they told me, as much as one of inevitability. You eat the sauerkraut ball because it’s omnipresent — a fixture at gatherings, placed in tidy circular formations on Don Drumm serving platters. And why would you deny the sauerkraut ball when it’s that much easier to give in to that unctuous satisfaction?

I think I liked my first taste. I liked it enough to order them again. But I guess I can’t really separate gustatory enjoyment from every other sensation of that day: the flush of my new engagement, the warmth of a packed bar as snow beat onto the hunched backs of cowering sedans, that inimitable smell of tabletop cleaner mixed with charred burger meat.

My delight in the sauerkraut ball comes mostly from its specificity. When you’re looking for a regional metonym, food often fills that role. There’s power in this sort of claim. Food historians and enthusiasts generally agree that the sauerkraut ball has its roots in Akron. (I daresay residents of Cincinnati and Shaker Heights would disabuse me of this claim.) There’s contention about whether the balls originated with German or Polish immigrants, each group asserting historical ownership over sauerkraut as a food category. But by the 1960s, the sauerkraut ball had become firmly ensconced in the culture (and kitchens) of Ohioans, particularly around the holidays, when they become synonymous with all things festive and redolent. Some even say they bring luck in the New Year. And of course, they maintain a place of honor at sauerkraut festivals like the one in nearby Waynesville.

The ball is truly the sum of its parts. Not just the physical components of sauerkraut and meat and breading, but the intangible, psychic ones too. Afternoons ambling through the metro parks, dodging skittish deer and overzealous neighbors. Sunday mass with a crush of bodies peeling from the pews, a crackle of communion wafers on the tongue. Holiday dinners where an overserved uncle debates the finer points of international politics while brandishing his Great Lakes Christmas Ale over a bunco table. Within all this, you have the tanginess of the sauerkraut, the prickling crunch of fried breading. The specificity of the sauerkraut ball begets a temporary nostalgia, a dull yet palpable longing for The Way Things Were.

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You’d think I’d be immune. After all, I didn’t grow up in the Midwest. I’m a Floridian, through and through, and a second-generation Vietnamese American immigrant, to boot. My food language is rooted in Key lime pie and sticky rice, catfish soup and conch fritters. But having spent almost half my advancing years in the Midwest, I consider it a sort of adopted home. At this point in my life, I’ve spent more holidays in Akron than nearly anywhere else, and I have fallen in love with the peculiarities and traditions of the city: I often relive the pop of my ears as I sail down the hilly roads; the taste of lemon bars from my favorite bakery on Market Street; that woodsmoke-filled air in October, just as the leaves redden in a blaze of preapocalyptic glory. Home feels less like a place than a kaleidoscopic shuffle of sensations, all just out of reach.

Over the years, as a social knee jerk, I’ve ordered sauerkraut balls whenever I see them. It’s a shorthand for fun. The sauerkraut ball, already awkward and ungainly, sucks all the tension out of the room, leaving space for lighthearted contemplation. My dining companions and I will exchange stories about other regional favorites — hot dish, she-crab soup, deep-fried gator tail — which inevitably leads to stories about childhood. These are the moments in which intimacy is made. This is when the ball becomes a breadcrumb, leading us down those well-traveled paths of the imagination.

In late October, my husband learned that Larry’s would be closing before the end of the year — at the exact moment when the world most requires a sauerkraut ball. Who knows if I’ll be able to make it back to Akron in time for its swan song? Driven by curiosity and taste memory, I scoured the internet for recipes, eventually landing on one that uses ham as the protein.

There are countless iterations of the sauerkraut ball, many specific to a region or family customs. Some recipes rely on cream cheese as a binder. One commenter suggested replacing the sauerkraut with kimchi. I bet it’d be good. But this time around, I remained faithful to the original ham-and-sauerkraut version, one of the first bites that connected me so firmly to a culture and a town that let my past mingle with theirs.

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One Sunday afternoon, I cleared my calendar. I spent a few hours sauteing and chilling, rolling and dredging. The process reminded me of sitting on a stool in my mother’s kitchen, helping her form nem patties before a family gathering. I called her to tell her what I was doing.

“Can I have the recipe?” she asked. “I love sauerkraut.” Of all the unexpected things.

While we chatted, I tried to replicate Larry’s dressing, which is based on that glorious, protean combination of mayonnaise and ketchup. That evening, two dozen balls lined my baking sheet, brown and crispy around the edges, meltingly tender in the center. The contrast in texture commands a certain anticipation for the moment when the breaded exterior gives way to that core of molten flavor. And to be honest, the first bite never lives up to the promise.

Would I make them again? Probably not. The recipe was more labor-intensive than I’d typically undertake for our family of three. And some things just taste better in their places of origin — like my grandmother’s lemongrass snapper and my mother-in-law’s Christmas ricotta balls, those reliable, generously offered dishes whose impact wanes with migration. But I’m glad I made the sauerkraut balls. It was an attempt to insert myself into a borrowed tradition and to offer that tradition to my husband and daughter, both of whom remain perplexed by this particular culinary obsession. I hope the knowledge of the sauerkraut ball will still rest somewhere inside of me years later, this combination of sensation and memory, of curiosity and belonging. Can we ask for much more from a holiday food?

Thao Thai is the author of Banyan Moon, a Read with Jenna and Barnes & Noble Discover selection.
Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.
Copy edited by CB Owens

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