I’ve spoken here before about Thanksgiving, about how as a child, it was my least favorite holiday of the year. (I should clarify that I am only talking about the years when I was in California…I don’t remember much about Thanksgiving in Alaska, but I’m sure it was lovely and fine.) My entire family (on my mom’s side) is obsessed with weight. My grandmother decided at a young age that she was NOT going to be fat like her parents and aunts, and pretty much has been on a diet ever since. To the point where now, at age 92 and weighing in at about 88 lbs, she will still make comments like, “Well, since I ate that brownie, I’ll have to starve myself tomorrow.” It’s digusting. She raised her kids to be obsessed with weight as well, putting my mom on a diet when she was about 10. It backfired, and the combination of her obsession and family genetics put all of her children into the overweight/obese category, though my aunt Colleen was much thinner than my mom or my uncle.
As might be expected, the conversation at family gatherings was often about dieting, about what one should and should not eat, what works and what doesn’t, on and on and on. And all the while, of course, there’s turkey and stuffing and potatoes and candied yams and gravy and pie and fruit salad and cranberry sauce and rolls. Please eat, enjoy…with an undertone of, you wouldn’t be so big if you didn’t enjoy quite so much. Ugh. Add to that the chain smoking by both of my grandparents, and throw in a big helping of my grandpa’s acid tongue and sarchasm, and you get the idea. No family gatherings were particularly wonderful or happy, but Thanksgiving seemed to me to be about food food food, and with this family, that was not a good thing. Plus most of the food wasn’t good. Turkey was dried out, mashed potatoes from a box, brown gravy from a packet, cranberry sauce from a can, yams from a can. Almost nothing was fresh.
I did always like the fruit salad and the cranberry sauce, canned though it was. Actually, I liked the mashed potatoes and gravy from a box/packet, if truth be told. It wasn’t until I was older and tried these things made from scratch that I realized that my grandparents’ cooking was like living in Plato’s cave, eating shadow versions of dishes, and there was a real world out there with delicious versionis of these same foods.
I remember the first time I tried cranberry sauce that wasn’t canned. It was 1993, and Ted and I were newly married. My mom had moved to Alaska that summer, though Richard and his wife had not moved up there yet, and were still in California. Richard and Kathy were married the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and my mom had flown down for the wedding. Generally we have Thanksgiving at Ted’s parents house, but we decided that year to have Thanksgiving at our apartment in San Francisco. Kathy asked what she could bring, and I don’t remember if she brought pie or something else, but I do remember that she brought cranberry sauce. It was a revelation. SO good. Not overly sweet. Fresh tasting. I begged her for her recipe, and she looked at me, stunned. “It’s on the back of the bag”, she said. “1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, cranberries….cook over medium heat until the cranberries pop. Chill. That’s it.” I think she felt that day about the same as she did when she told Richard they were going to make mashed potatoes, and he grabbed the box of powdered potatoes, while she grabbed fresh potatoes from the produce aisle.
Ever since that year, I’ve made this version of cranberry sauce, with a few exceptions. One year I tried a savory version, which I did not care for. One year I added a pinch of salt, which was fine but not really any different. This year, for Canadian Thanksgiving in October, I tried a new recipe. I don’t know what motivated me to do so, but I did. It’s very similar to the one on the cranberry bag, but has less liquid. You start out over low heat with the sugar, cranberries, and only 2 tblsp of water instead of a cup. When the sugar dissolves, you have plenty of liquid, so then you turn up the heat to medium and cook until the cranberries pop. I found the recipe on Food Network, and they added a strip of orange peel, which I don’t fancy. Some commenters used 2 tblsp OJ instead of water. Result? A lovely cranberry sauce! Not adding as much water gives you more concentrated cranberry flavor. Also, I used a bit less than a cup of sugar. Maybe more than 3/4 of a cup, I’m not exactly sure. Delicious. So this is the cranberry sauce recipe that I’m making for today’s Thanksgiving feast.
I’ll be thinking of Kathy, and thanking her for introducing me to fresh cranberry sauce. I’ll be thinking of my mom and all of the years when she would come to California for a month, and Thanksgiving was during that time and she would spend a week with us. I wish we were able to do that this year. I’ll be thinking of my grandma and how much I love her, even if a visit with her means coming home smelling like cigarettes. I’ll be thinking of my grandpa and how much I loved him, even if he was a mean old man. I’ll be enjoying a lovely day of delicious, freshly made food, laughter, music, wine, and fun with our new dog, at Ted’s parents house. I do have a lot to be thankful for. (I considered changing that to the more gramattically correct, “I do have much for which to be thankful” but I don’t like it, so I didn’t.)
If you’ve not tried fresh cranberry sauce, or if you have only tried the version with 1 whole cup of water, give this one a try. It’s delicious.
12 0z cranberries (fresh or frozen)
3/4 cup sugar
2 tblsp water or orange juice
1 strip orange or lemon zest, optional
Put all ingredients into a saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves and the cranberries are soft, about 10 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and cook until the cranberries burst, about 12 minutes.