Meat Balls in Dill Sauce, from the 1978 Thorn Grove Baptist Church Cookbook caught my eye for two reasons. First, recipes that call for fresh herbs are surprisingly rare in my older cookbooks. This one in particular calls for heroic amounts of dill. Second, it’s one of the few recipes in my vintage church cookbooks that’s authored by a man. In this case the pastor of the congregation.
When I write about recipes from my church cookbooks I’ll usually do a quick public records search to learn a little something about the author. Most of the time I come up empty, but occasionally I’ll come across an obituary or a newspaper article that gives me a hint of personal insight. For example, a cursory internet search tells me that the good Reverend was an World War II veteran (Army) and also an elementary school principal. He passed away in 2013 and would have been in his mid 50s when he wrote this recipe. I’ll sneak a couple of biographical tidbits into the recipe review, but won’t typically disclose personally identifying information out of respect for people’s privacy.
But in researching the good Reverend’s life I came across more than I had bargained for. Just a few short years after this cookbook was compiled there was a grisly murder in the Reverend’s South Knoxville home. The murder was committed by a housemate – the Reverend was neither victim nor perpetrator – but an event that sent shocks through the community. I went from wondering about the origins of his meatballs and dill sauce recipe to wondering how the congregation and community at large recovered from the tragedy. Now I’m not in the business of curating a true crime site, but this was too terrifying a story simply to gloss over. And while I hope you’re here for the recipes, I realize that human nature is what it is, so for interested parties I’ve written up a short account of the tragedy here.
And while it seems anticlimactic at this point, I really did set out to write about his recipe. It needs some tweaking to be workable, especially for a large batch, but it’s reasonably quick and easy and quite good. I struggled with the meatball recipe, but I’ve never had success with the whole bread-and-milk approach to making meatballs. They always seem to fall apart on me when I cook them. In my adaptation below I’ve used bread crumbs as the binder, but if you want to kick it old school you can substitute two slices of bread and a half a cup of milk.
If I’ve got extra potatoes on hand I’ll make a quick and dirty homemade cream of potato soup, from another vintage church cookbook. The condensed soup makes for a slightly thicker sauce and provides a little bit better flavor, but it’s probably a function of higher sodium content than some sort of magical herbs and spices. I have also amped up the dill a little bit, because that’s just how I roll.
The final meal is quite hearty, with the one-two-punch of the meat and potatoes. There are plenty of ground beef and condensed soup dishes out there, but the dill lends enough character to make this one feel almost fancy. Meat Balls in Dill Sauce pairs well with egg noodles, rice, or hot buttered rolls. It also desperately needs a green vegetable or salad. It also pairs quite well with the (excellent) Fire and Ice Tomatoes recipe in the same cookbook.
Which brings me to end on a happy note. The good Reverend was lifelong friends with the author of the Fire and Ice Tomatoes recipe. While neither ever married, they were so close that she’s mentioned in his obituary in the same breath as family and close relatives. I find some comfort in knowing that she remained his friend after the tragedy, up until her death in the early 2000s. I don’t know the nature of their relationship and it’s frankly none of my business, but they must have had some amazing dinners together.
For the meatballs:
- 1 lb ground beef (80/20 works best)
- 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup sweet onion (minced)
- 2 tbsp fresh parsley (finely chopped)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
For the sauce
- Combine meatball ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix by hand until well combined.
- Heat oil in a medium skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium heat. Form meat mixture into small balls, about 1 inch in diameter, and brown on all sides, turning every minute or so until the outside is browned evenly. Work in batches if needed.
- In a large saucepan mix soup, milk, and dill and heat over medium-high heat until boiling and bubbly. Reduce heat to medium, add meatballs and cook until mixture is heated through and meatballs are fully cooked in the middle, about 10-12 minutes.
- Serve with rice, egg noodles, or over the top of hot buttered rolls.
Homemade cream of potato soup is easy to make if you have extra potatoes on hand, but this recipe calls for condensed soup that’s not fully reconstituted. If you use the recipe from the good parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help omit the 2 cups of milk and substitute one cup of evaporated milk to get the right texture.