One year, I served six types of cranberry to keep the peace among five people for thirty minutes.
Thanksgiving gathers us around a table with mouths full of food, stories—and opinions. American Thanksgiving lore suggests that everyone from sea to shining sea enjoys the same iconic dishes: turkey, dressing, cranberries, and pie. In practice, that’s not the full picture. When it comes to a southern family’s (actual and/or chosen kin) T-Day table, most of us serve familiar standards alongside local specialties that might perplex folks from another part of the country, or branch of the family tree. Dinner table loyalties and habits hold true any old Thursday, but come Thanksgiving, we double down. The only consistency is that each of us believes our version is the best.
A turkey is a turkey, but Thanksgiving sides are both infinitely variable and insistently personal. I believe the celebratory feast should make each guest feel comforted by at least one dish. So if a specific side embodies the essence of Thanksgiving for someone gathered round, put it on the table (even if it’s some cockamamie thing from that side of the family.) Everyone will feel thankful, and—if my experience holds true—it’ll make for a great story after enough time passes.
One year, I served six types of cranberry to keep the peace among five people for thirty minutes: my adolescent daughter, two senior citizen parents, my (then) spouse, and me. Here’s the rundown and the lowdown.
To paraphrase an old blues song: It must be Jell-O ’cause jam don’t shake like that. I’m a legacy member of Team Congealed Salad, loyal for life. My grandmother made them. Even my mother (who cooks pretty much nothing) makes them. My daughter likes them but doesn’t talk about it in public. I prepared the fruited gelatin mixture in a shallow dish so that I could cut and serve tidy squares topped with swirled dollops of poppy seed–speckled mayonnaise. It balances the sweetness, plus the opportunity to use doctored up mayonnaise on anything is a bonus in my book,year-round.
The recipe is similar in spirt and intention to my squares but harbors less fruit and nuts, which might mar the sleek molded shape and ruby red gleam. It’s also a memorial tribute to my beloved Aunt Jean—my granddaddy’s youngest sister—a tiny woman with a huge collection of gelatin molds, one for any occasion you can imagine. She always unmolded her fancy congealed salad onto an even fancier silver tray lined with lettuce leaves. I wish you could have seen her totter to the table in high heels to present her creation with pride and joy. Aunt Jean was the picture of what the inimitable food writer and wit Julia Reed once called, perfectly, a Miss Congealiality.
I once had a husband who loved canned cranberry sauce, and only canned sauce. He was not alone in that. Ocean Spray, for one, sells something like 70 million cans each holiday season. For him and his ilk, the sound of the season wasn’t carols, or jingling bells, or the buzzy hum of a televised football game in the background; it was the sucking sound that sauce makes as it slips out of the can. Every year he marveled that the ringed indentions on the sauce log are perfect cutting lines.
I develop dozens of recipes for a number of publications each year. This includes the annual offerings of new and allegedly improved ways to prepare classic holiday recipes. In the Year of Our Cranberry, I created a complex chutney made from fresh and dried fruit simmered with spices and a bottle of port. The kitchen smelled heavenly. I stand behind that recipe to this day, but my family wouldn’t stand for it. Their mutterings implied that chutney wasn’t what we do on Thanksgiving.
I’m not alone in wishing I’d paid closer attention to how my grandmother (or other storied cooks from our pasts) made a particular dish. I loved the homemade cranberry relish that she served in a pretty cut-glass bowl. My first attempt to recreate her cranberry relish, based on taste memory alone, was close, but the texture was off. It turned out too finely minced and released an astounding amount of liquid, enough to warrant the use of the slotted serving spoon I’d slated to go in the green beans. This attempt was too good to throw away, but not good enough to be a keeper, so I thought things through and tried again.
Although my favorite Thanksgiving cranberry relish will never be as good as Madge Marie Reece Castle’s simply because she is no longer here to eat it with us, this recipe serves its purpose. I figured out that my mistake was using a fancy food processor, something she never owned. My turning point was a flashback of her running the fresh tart cranberries, whole sweet citrus, and a heaping handful of freshly shelled pecans through a hand-cranked, metal sausage grinder, which crushed the ingredients into perfect juicy, nubby bits. My granddaddy, who did all manner of things for the household, all outside the kitchen, held her catch-all dishpan under the spout. He had tightened the grinder’s C-clip to the wooden yellow step stool kept close at hand to reach high shelves. And not insignificantly, I remembered that my job as a young child was to sit atop the stepstool to so that it wouldn’t shimmy while she turned the crank. Yes, I was helping. A few years later, I was making the family feast side-by-side with her. A handful of years later, I cooked it all while she watched and advised. And then, too soon, I was on my own to make my favorite cranberry recipe, using her grinder and that magic dishpan, which had become mine.
Yes, I served six kinds of cranberry that year so that everyone around my table could taste what pleased and reassured them, a taste of home. We were thankful. Amen. (And no, I haven’t done it again. Well, not cranberries. There was that year we had all those different dressings. )