One of my favorite parts of the Thanksgiving meal is the cranberry sauce and in my experience no cranberry sauce could ever quite match up to my grandmother's. It was just the right combination of sweet and tart, with the perfect whole berries to crushed berries to juice ratio. I would always leave a large section of my plate empty until I got to the cranberries and then pile them as high as I could, knowing I would still be going back for more (and then mixing them with mustard for a turkey sandwich the next day... with an extra bowl on the side). I raved to my grandmother every year about her cranberry sauce and she would smile, her eyes full of pride and years of cranberry wisdom and experience and that signature smugness that my grandmother wore as elegantly as her enormous jeweled rings, revealing nothing.
This year was our first Thanksgiving without my grandmother. My mom made the ginger muffins (another of Grandma's finest recipes), cooked a beautiful bird stuffed with cornbread goodness, roasted green beans with mushrooms, and baked apple brown betty for dessert (we skipped the family tradition of Woodfurd pudding... but that's another blog entry). As I was helping put away ingredients, I found the bags of cranberries in the pantry.
"MOM." The bags hung limply, one from each hand, as I turned to her with a look of resignation. "The cranberries."
"Oh," she said dismissively, wiping down the counters. "You just make them."
Now, I am good at many things, but I have never considered myself an accomplished chef by any means. The thought that I, a lowly and inexperienced novice in the kitchen, could recreate the cranberry magic that my grandmother brought to the table every year was not only improbable, it was LAUGHABLE.
"Greer, just read the back of the bag."
The back of the bag? I turned the package over, sure to be confronted with some kind of code or the first clue that would lead me on the mysterious journey to find the secret of The Perfect Cranberry Sauce. Instead... "Bring water and one cup sugar to a boil. Add cranberries and continue to boil gently for approximately 10 minutes."
"Then what?" I asked my mother.
"Then we'll start the turkey."
"No, I mean, what do I do after the bag instructions?"
"That's it. We put them in the fridge."
The shock must have shown on my face. It was like hearing that the pyramids were actually miniature and just looked big in pictures or figuring out that the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle was actually easily solved with a simple pattern of the same letters every week.
"I feel like part of my childhood was just stolen from me." I said, dumping the berries in the pot and watching them begin to pop and bubble. "All the time she made it seem like this great mystery... this amazing recipe. And all along she was just reading off the back of the bag."
"Well... add something to it then." My mom said. I don't think she got quite how earth-shaking this revelation was for me. I watched the berries bubbling in the pot, waiting for them to reach that perfect whole berries to crushed berries to juice ratio.
And then I did add something. I added some brown sugar and little lemon juice. And I added a little bit of experience, and a little bit of cranberry wisdom, and a little pride. And, just for Grandma, a little bit of that signature smugness and, I hope, a pinch of elegance.
The cranberries were especially delicious this year.