Thanksgiving’s forbidden fruit
By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 18, 2016
As a kid, my favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal wasn’t the turkey.
I didn’t drool over the mashed potatoes or my father’s giblet gravy. I didn’t love — or even like, for that matter — those tiny pickles and whatnots on my mother’s sectioned relish tray. I thought the stuffing had too many unidentifiable objects in it to be palatable, and I wouldn’t even touch a yam, candied or otherwise. Believe it or not, I never got jazzed up about the pumpkin pie, even with a humongous dollop of Cool Whip.
My favorite part of my family’s Thanksgiving meal was the one that sat in a little pressed-glass dish at the corner of the dining table. It didn’t require much preparation, but it was an essential part of our feast that I looked forward to every year.
It was the canned cranberry sauce.
Now, don’t judge. After all, it was the ’70s, when we ate everything out of cans. Peas, corn, fruit juice, grapefruit sections, ham, chow mein, beef stew, liverwurst and even chocolate syrup. It was a decade that celebrated ingenious cooking shortcuts like canned foods, processed meats, flavored gelatin and mini-marshmallows. Back then, canned cranberry sauce was downright trendy.
Besides, that stuff is delicious. Admit it.
When I was old enough to use the can opener, my mother would let me prepare the cranberries for our Thanksgiving meal. After releasing the suction and prying off the lid, the jellied cylinder would slide out onto the pressed glass dish, perfectly intact and still showing the ridged impressions of the can, with a pleasing little plop. With a table knife, I’d slowly carve the rounded mold into uniform disks that wiggled as I carried them to the table.
To me, the sweet, tangy, chilled, translucent, smooth, slices glowed like rubies in the candlelight refracting through the pressed glass. We passed the cranberry dish around like a cherished chalice, delving into delicate slices with a silver spoon.
Back then, one can of cranberry sauce cost less than a quarter, but it tasted simply divine. A plate of traditional Pilgrim and Indian fare — turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and corn — was most definitely refined by a slice of glimmering canned cranberries. It gave our Thanksgiving dinner elevated status and made it seem gourmet, fancy, high class.
So why, 40 years later, has canned cranberry sauce been relegated to the ranks of the boxed stuffings, jarred gravies and other homely shortcuts of the culinary world?
Twenty-three years ago, I married a Navy man and we’ve moved around the world. Most holidays, we were unable to travel the distance to be with extended family, so we shared meals with other military friends who were in the same boat (pun most definitely intended). During the inevitable meal planning conversations between spouses, I learned quickly that it wasn’t cool to serve canned cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.
“You make your own cranberry relish, right?” they would ask, incredulously. And to save face, I would lie.
“Oh, of course! I always make cranberry sauce from scratch, you know, with the real cranberries and, uh ... the sugar and ... uh, what’s that other ingredient?”
And at every Thanksgiving meal we shared with other military families over the years, I fawned over the homemade cranberry relishes my friends had been stewing all day with fresh ginger, orange zest or cloves.
However, I never let a Thanksgiving go by without sneaking a secret smack of my beloved canned cranberry sauce. I’d saunter by the seasonal commissary display with its fried onions, condensed milk and chicken broth, and inconspicuously slip a can of cranberries into my grocery cart without anyone noticing.
But all these years of shame and secrecy are wearing on me. I’m ready to come out of the closet, or pantry, as it were. I’ll admit, I rarely dust anything. I don’t understand the cloud. I color my grays. I still have my puka shell anklet from 1981 because I think it will come back into style.
And yes, I love canned cranberry sauce.
Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com.