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  • Writer's pictureJessica Leigh Lebos

Thrillist.Com: Why Thanksgiving Means Sweet Potato Orange Balls

We got the call that my mother-in-law died between dinner and dessert. 

It wasn’t so unexpected, as she had been confined to bed with dementia for several years and had recently taken a downward turn. It was as if she wanted her time to come while we were all gathered together, and she knew it would be a minute before anyone was ready for pie. She was always courteous like that.

We processed the news in a tryptophan haze, staring at each other around the table, which looked like what I assume most families’ Thanksgiving spread resembles after the meal, that is to say, attacked by jackals. Turkey carcass askew, gravy pooling on the tablecloth, casserole dishes plundered from two, three, four helpings. 

Except for the sweet potato orange balls. These sat almost exactly how my daughter had arranged them hours earlier, in stark contrast from the rest of the carnage, more table decor than actual victual.    

If you’re not familiar with these individual scoops of sugary tuber served in hollowed-out citrus halves and dotted with tiny requisite confections, they do hold a certain presentational panache—I mean, cute, right? They’re also ridiculously laborious. The process involves juicing the oranges and removing all pulp from the rinds, roasting whole sweet potatoes and scraping the skins, mixing up the mash with eggs and spices, scooping that back into the orange rinds, neatly placing tiny marshmallows on the mounds without five or six ending up in your hair, and baking in an already overstuffed oven.

Every year, each member of the family politely adds one to their plate, pokes at it and picks off a mini-marshmallow or two. The rest of the pan just sits there, the sticky red-headed stepchild of our Thanksgiving table. I always try to pawn off one or two in Tupperwares to take home, but inevitably someone catches on and pointedly asks to replace them with more stuffing. 

Why would I make them every Thanksgiving, you ask, if I am so bitter about sweet potato orange balls? Well, at some point during my mother-in-law’s decline, my husband and his brother fondly remembered her once making this dish in their childhood. Eager to appease the grief over her condition and ignorant of how much time the task takes in relation to preparing the rest of the meal, I volunteered to recreate them from a faded index card plucked from her flowered tin recipe box. 

What they didn’t remember until after the first forkful was that no one had actually liked them. Too sweet, too mushy, too weird. In fact, my husband now recalled, they’d been something of a family joke, with Uncle Keith pretending they were giant eyeballs and also apparently, boobs. That probably had something to do with why my mother-in-law never made them again. 

Yet the next Thanksgiving, everyone insisted on more sweet potato orange balls. I blanched, then conceded, because I adored my mother-in-law. She wasn’t much of a cook. However, she will be remembered for being wonderful at many other things, like knitting colorful scarves and playing show tunes on the piano. She also graduated valedictorian from Duke, and once bought me a pair of leather pants on sale.

At any rate, the balls became a way to bring her to the table when she could no longer leave her bed, which mattered far more than the unspoken family dictate that no one will ever eat them. 

Still, every year as I chiseled cauterized marshmallow off the baking ban and tossed the remaining balls in the trash, I secretly plotted to replace them with something less labor intensive, like a cheese log.  

That is, until we got the call. We leaned on our elbows as my father-in-law’s face went pale and he murmured that he would be right there. Everyone’s eyes went to the untouched tray of sweet potato balls, and we wept. Somewhere between sadness and relief that this wonderful lady was finally free of her suffering came the humble acceptance that I would now be making sweet potato orange balls for every Thanksgiving for the rest of my life.  

And thus far I have. But not without amendments to my mother-in-law’s recipe, which she’d probably found among the likes of chicken a la king and aspic molds in a 1978 copy of Southern Living, the previous generations’ aspirational cooking porn. She was always eager to try something new, making up for in enthusiasm what she lacked in skill. 

In the effort to fulfill my familial SPOB duty and not waste precious food, I have added tweaks and tricks over the years to make the balls less onerous and more palatable.

Roasting the sweet potatoes the day before saves time, and replacing vanilla extract with bourbon brings a sophisticated flavor layer and also makes the assembly process more enjoyable.

Leaving out any added sugar brings out the natural taste of the sweet potatoes, and I’ve discovered that reserving the rest of the orange juice is a fabulous way to add flavor to the cranberry sauce (just replace it cup for cup with the required water and reduce sugar by half.) I also began using non-dairy alternatives a couple of years ago to accommodate certain family members’ diets, but don’t tell my father-in-law because he thinks coconut milk is for hippies. 

Taste has slowly come around to tradition; last year the pan looked almost as ravaged the rest of the table. As with any complex family relationship, however, I’ve had to come to terms with sweet potato orange balls. They’re still not as easy as a cheese log, but I’m grateful for the opportunity each year to honor my dear mother-in-law (which I also do by wearing the leather pants.) I don’t even mind anymore when someone clears their throat when I try to put a few into a to-go Tupperware. I’m just glad I didn’t get saddled with a recipe for an aspic mold.

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