A couple months ago, back when the sun was still out at 5 p.m. and Thanksgiving was hardly even on the horizon, I started poring over 1970s November issues of Gourmet. The goal of my frequent trips to the magazine archives was to compose a perfectly balanced, ostentatiously fancy, fantastically vintage Thanksgiving menu for Epicurious readers. But I walked away from that stack of magazines with so much more—including a conviction that if you want to have a Thanksgiving full of 1970s flair, you really need a melon baller.
No, there were no out-of-season fruit salads in the Thanksgiving issues of Gourmet between the years of 1970 and 1979, but this gadget nevertheless seems to have been working overtime in the test kitchen during that decade. Chalk it up to the mythos of the moon landing fresh in the collective consciousness, or the rise of disco, but this decade of home cooks could not get enough spheres.
In the 1977 November issue of Gourmet, the melon baller came in clutch for a Two-Potato Sauté. The tool turned parboiled potatoes and sweet potatoes into bite-size pearls to be toasted in butter for a sort of starchy, two-tone version of Thanksgiving Dippin’ Dots.
In 1978, things got really wild when the melon baller was used to carve a pumpkin into uniform orange marbles to transform into Pickled Pumpkin Balls. Each scoop of pumpkin is simmered in a vinegary syrup packed with warming autumnal spices, creating a perfect sweet-and-savory condiment to pair with roast turkey.
And in 1979, melon balls appeared back on the menu once again in the form of a scallop ceviche punctuated with globes of avocado—a clever way to keep each bite of avocado uniform, intact, and photogenic.
While the legacy of melon ballers didn’t end in the ’70s (you can still buy this T-shirt of a melon ball–forward Gourmet cover from 1986), the gadget still stands out as one of the most important trademarks of the decade, right up there with polished silver serving dishes and ornate jelly molds. And unlike the latter two pieces of equipment, a melon baller can cost as little as $2 and takes up remarkably little drawer space.
Unlike the special occasion silver, you can pull out this tool anytime during the year, using it to make adorable summery sundaes with cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream, or to carve honeydew into skewered garnishes for refreshing cocktails. You can use the delicate spoon to portion out uniform scoops of ganache for homemade truffles, or you can make your fruit salads even more Michelin-star-worthy.
Fortuitously, while photographing our ’70s and ’90s Thanksgiving menus, Epi staffer Joseph De Leo discovered that you can even find melon ballers that double as butter curlers—an amazing two-in-one tool to keep handy if your ’70s-inspired Thanksgiving menu involves an elegant plate of radishes and butter curls (Your spiralizer could never!). So take some advice from a decade’s worth of Gourmet Thanksgiving recipes and add this tiny tool to your holiday arsenal—it’s not just for melon anymore.