After my Iowan sister-in-law introduced me to the "walking taco," I was prepared to believe anything.
If someone had told me that fried Cheez Whiz on a stick was a staple of the Midwestern wedding buffet, I would not have questioned it.
Once you have accepted the fact that people will eat ground beef out of a Doritos bag, what is left to doubt?
Even so, the ham ball had me grabbing for my notebook in disbelief.
We were sitting around the kitchen table drinking wine in one of those far-flung Midwestern suburbs few outsiders will ever visit, when our hostess threw out a strange warning.
"Don't make me get the ham ball," she called to her husband, whose unfinished workday was keeping us from our dinner reservations.
Her husband came soon enough and we were spared whatever danger the ham ball posed.
But I had to know. Ham ball??
"The ham ball," she repeated, looking to the two other Midwesterners at the table, who nodded in recognition of what is apparently both a popular hors d'oeuvre and a threat in these parts.
"Okay," I said, flipping open my notebook. "I have to know."
"How much of the Buddig?" our hostess asked her friend. They debated, then settled on an amount.
"The Buddig" it turns out, is a package of Carl Buddig ham, which according to its label, has been "smoked, sliced, chopped pressed and cooked." When I was growing up, we called this stuff lunchmeat. It was piled artlessly between slices of bread and eaten with mustard, or perhaps mayonnaise. The aesthetic possibilities went undeveloped.
But when chopped into bits, mixed with 8 ounces of slightly softened cream cheese, a couple of chopped green onions and a little bit of Worcestershire, the Buddig is transformed into edible clay from which the "ball" or any number of other shapes can be molded. Footballs (with processed cheese spread laces) are popular and there is one reported case of a ham ball sculpted into a bust of someone's mother. This is accepted as an unironic tribute in the heartland.
It is a staple of the buffet and the block party, where I am told, the baked Brie goes untouched in favor of the ham ball.
"Cream cheese," our hostess confided, "is what holds Midwestern housewives together."
She added: "If you want to get really fancy, you chop up some more of the Buddig and you roll it in."
"We don't do that," said the other woman. "We're riffraff."
I may be getting in touch with my inner Midwesterner. I so want to make a ham ball. But this recipe is not going to cut it for me. Any suggestions? Wine pairings? Party invitations? I'm bringing the ham ball.
Photo: Midwestern party starter.