One of the most vivid sights on the traditional Thanksgiving table is the much-misunderstood cranberry sauce. It has a place all its own, sweeter than the other savory dishes around it but not being quite enough to make it to the dessert course. Diners seem to have a love/hate relationship with the crimson stuff, which sometimes corresponds to how they first experienced it. Iconic in its jellied form, who doesn’t recall the unique sucking noise it makes slipping out of the can to stand in the bowl like a monument, a tube formation ridged in memory of the can it has finally left? More respected in its homemade form, it sits in a glass bowl perhaps a little more ignored, the burst berries sitting in their own juices while everyone tries to sort out if they feel like chewing on the skins. No one has these memories, or quandaries, about the mashed potatoes.
Cranberry sauce has its origins at the beginning of the 20th century, offered to consumers in North America first in Hanson, Massachusetts. By the 40’s, the canned stuff allowed it to be sold year-round, though let’s be completely honest: who eats cranberry sauce outside of its Thanksgiving context? For that matter, does anyone actually use it as a condiment on meat, its actual intended use?
Made from scratch, the concept is pretty basic: boil some raw, sour cranberries in sugar water until they burst and the mixture thickens up. A secret family recipe may call for a special ingredient to be added: orange juice, ginger, maple syrup? Maybe a drop of port? I’ve seen recipes that even called for slivered almonds.
When I was a child, my family kept it nice and simple: my father might experiment with increasingly gourmet ways of preparing a turkey, and my mom might have the magic touch for the mashed potatoes method, but the cranberry sauce was not a culinary wonder. When ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner were being gathered at the grocery store, the can of cranberry sauce made a distinctive metal clang against the bottom of the cart. I stared at it greedily, imagining the jellied discs that the cylindrical sauce would be cut into and how they would feel, bite for bite, in my mouth. There would be no leftovers in the fridge that night, settled among the towering containers of gravy and stuffing and peas and sweet potato casserole. My sisters were as gluttonous as I was when it came to cranberry sauce; that bowl wasn’t leaving the table until it was empty.
One year, my father decided to make us homemade cranberry sauce after likely seeing it on a cooking show. It may have been the same year he decided to return to having a real tree in for the holidays, a year of returned traditions. Someone’s traditions anyway—we had never had homemade cranberry sauce any more than we knew there were tree options other than green plastic. I dubiously watched the proceedings, surreptitiously squeezing a cranberry through the plastic of the bag and being dismayed by its hard, un-jellied structure. They sounded like rubber balls being poured into the pan, and I knew I would yearn for the can before my dad had even put the lid on.
With that sort of set up, it would be a better story if I’d been surprised and thrilled by the flavor of this new cranberry sauce. Sadly, I wasn’t that open-minded of a kid—I disdained it in solidarity with my sisters.
The next year, my dad tried again. However, there were two bowls of scarlet on the table, one for the homemade sauce and the other for that slippery gel from the can. The homemade cranberry sauce made it into the fridge that night as leftovers. The canned stuff did not.
It was in my teen years that my father took another approach, obviously playing on my recent conceit that I was some sort of foodie. He presented a new plan, a recipe we could make together. No exploding cranberries, no ridged cylinder, but raw cranberries made mild with sugar and orange zest, shredded and zipped together in the food processor and then let sit to meld the flavors. I was as proud of the result as if I had invented the recipe myself. There was general enthusiasm at the table, which I also took as my due.
Since then, cranberry sauce has been a rotating sort of dish in my family’s household. The can makes an appearance some years, the zesty cranberry relish is a feature most years, and last year my cousin’s spiced homemade cranberry sauce made its debut. With an adult mind, I appreciate the homemade varieties and I cringe at the thought of the sugar content in the jellied ones- I’ve never had the guts to actually look at the nutrition information on the label, but I feel like I have a pretty good guess. Even so, if my mom tells me to help out in the kitchen this year and the can is sitting there next to the opener, I’ll be thrilled with the sliding squelch noise, I’ll be delighted by the give of the ridged cylinder to the knife as I slice it into discs in the bowl, and I’ll be properly thankful when the bowl makes it around to my side of the table. Might as well get it while it’s there. It’s not like there’s going to be any leftovers.