By Carolyn Wyman
Originally published on philly.com November 2015
“People, of all ages, enjoy ball jokes,” declares Debra Ciasullo of Northern Liberties’ the Blind Pig.
It’s insight she’s acquired as co-owner of a gastropub whose signature dish simultaneously evokes images of Norman Rockwell family gatherings and male genitalia. That dish is Thanksgiving balls: turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes rolled in panko crumbs then deep-fried and served with sides of gravy, cranberry sauce and off-color humor.
Ciasullo and her husband, Blind Pig chef and co-owner David Hentz, also enjoy ball jokes, judging from Ciasullo’s (unpostable) favorite retorts to customer comments about their most famous appetizer and Hentz’s favorite way of livening up a slow night at his bar: by personally delivering this dish to ordering diners and asking, “Can you move your drinks so I can place my balls on your table?”
“Of course, we don’t do this to every customer,” Ciasullo adds quickly. Certainly not to the nuns and priests who sometimes stop by to eat.
Hentz invented the dish on Thanksgiving 2003 while trying to figure out a second-day take on the leftovers from the Thanksgiving dinner served at the restaurant where he was then working. The usual next-day lunch was turkey sandwiches or soup. But when Hentz told Ciasullo about the deep-fried appetizer of Thanksgiving dinner ingredients he had been working on, Ciasullo declared it “genius” and told him to “zip it. If it was served at that restaurant first and became a hit, that’s the place that would be known for it,” she argued.
And so Hentz’s genius idea remained just that until the couple opened their own Blind Pig restaurant in 2011, with the appetizer, then called Thanksgiving bites, on the menu. “David wanted to call them balls. And people at the soft opening said they were too big to be called bites. I said, ‘Yeah but do you really want to call them that?’ I am by no means a prude but I was a little concerned coming out of the gate with that.”
But Ciasullo quickly came around to his way of thinking and she’s glad she did: The Balls were an immediate hit; so much so that within a few months she had T shirts made up featuring the bar name and the slogan “The best balls I ever ate” slogan. Their Twitter descriptor? “Northern Liberty bar with balls.”
That just doesn’t refer to the Thanksgiving balls. Blind Pig also serves blue balls, another deep-fried double-entendre Hentz introduced about a month after the Thanksgiving ones as a special that stayed on after stellar sales. In this case the name came first — “David wanted to write blue balls on the chalkboard,” says Ciasullo — and the dish — featuring blue cheese, short rib and potatoes followed.
Ball specials that didn’t stick include mac daddies (barbecued pork and mac and cheese), sloppy balls (with Sloppy Joe ingredients), hare balls (with rabbit, at Easter), turducken balls (turkey, chicken and duck confit and potato) and Blitzen balls (a December holiday version featuring venison, parsnip and potato).
Thanksgiving balls are a year-round item whose sales dip only slightly in summer and spike, also slightly, in the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving — from people who “didn’t go anywhere [for Thanksgiving dinner] but crave the taste” (says Ciasullo), or order them takeout as an appetizer — or, rarely, a substitute — for a regular Thanksgiving feast. The largest takeout order — for 100 balls — came from the Temple Owls football team one November a few years back.
The Pig boasts a wide-ranging regional comfort food menu (including several pork dishes, though the bar name was actually inspired by a Prohibition-era term for speakeasy). Hentz is also committed to cooking from scratch from fresh local ingredients: The cheese curds on their popular poutine starter comes from Wholesome Dairy Farms in Reading and Hentz roasts one to two turkeys a week for the meat in the Thanksgiving balls. Nevertheless, a significant number of new customers are men in their teens and 20s attracted by the name and novelty of the ball dishes.
Most chefs would be dismayed by that but Tir Na Nog/Flat Rock Saloon/London Grill vet Hentz says he’s “just a cook,” and both he and Ciasullo obviously make fun a priority.
To wit: One day this summer Ciasullo was chatting with a customer who mentioned that he was a Wing Bowl competitor. She immediately invited Breandan “Skin & Bones” Lyman to eat a Thanksgiving Ball order as fast as he could. Ciasullo says the bar turned absolutely silent as people watched him wolf down two balls in 50 seconds. (There’s a video on the bar’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/blindpigphilly/.)
“He recently told me that he’s planning to eat the Thanksgiving Balls as his qualifying stunt for next year’s Wing Bowl,” Ciasullo declares proudly.
Get It: $9 at The Blind Pig, 702 N. Second St., 267-639-4565, blindpigphilly.com. Kitchen hours: 5-10 p.m. Sundays – Wednesdays and 5- midnight Thursdays – Saturdays. (Ironically, you cannot get Thanksgiving balls on Thanksgiving because the Blind Pig will be closed.)