Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Cranberry Sauce

Growing up, my father did most of the cooking. He was good at it, too, if not particularly ambitious, more often not gravitating to a handful of staple dishes that, particularly after my sister left for college and there were only three mouths to feed, deteriorated to roast chicken most night, with a rotation of side dishes including baked potatoes, carrots, or corn.

But Thanksgiving was different. Not especially elaborate or adventurous either, but from my earliest memories of the holiday, my dad spent most of the day roasting a turkey, and he’d cook the stuffing right inside it. There were yams. And there was cranberry sauce.

The cranberry sauce came in gelatinous form, straight from the can—the tell-tale sign that it remained in the shape of a can in its bowl on our kitchen table, complete with the ridges from where its container had pressed upon it over months or years of storage in preparation for the one holiday in which families across the area sought after it.

And though that cranberry sauce explicitly required less effort than anything else in the spread, and was in no way unique to our family’s kitchen, something about the familiarity of it, and the way in which I could automatically associate it with that particular holiday-the one time a year when my grandmother would come to the house, and one of the few occasions when we’d eat family style and eat as much as we wanted rather then well-defined portions.

And I’d see that same cranberry sauce again. When I went to my best friend’s, and later a girlfriend’s family’s house for Thanksgiving and recognized the ridges, more subtle for sauce having been portioned into neat slices, the better for serving for oneself rather than scooping unevenly at the mass of the stuff with a spoon.

Years later, volunteering in Baltimore, we had a potluck dinner the children’s organization I worked with. On an ordinary week, one donor would contribute a full meal for all of the kids and tutors, but on Thanksgiving, we usually had a turkey donated and prepared for us, but the rest was up to each individual tutor to bring something. People brought sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon, fresh-baked pumpkin pies, hand-whipped mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, and fancy salads.

And me--I brought four cans of cranberry sauce, sliced up in a pair of glass bowls.

And it was with no small pleasure that I watched the kids forego all of these more nutritious, ambitious, and more artfully prepared dishes in favor of the sugary goop I’d bought from the grocery store the night before, emptied into a bowl that morning, and stored in my office refrigerator until it was time to head to the church.

I watched the kids shovel cranberry sauce from the bowl greedily until the woman in charge cautioned them they could only take two slices a piece, for fear it would run out and the rest of the kids would throw a tantrum at not getting their taste.

And I knew that I had done right by Thanksgiving.

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