An ode to cranberry sauce (actually, it’s a log)

If Thanksgiving is a feast for the senses, let us consider some of the sounds:

■ The “Mwah! Mwah! Everything is fabulous!” tones of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade emcees blaring from the TV, followed by the natter natter natter of football color commentators.

■ The scrape of spoons against bowls, stirring the stuffing, stirring the pie filling, stirring the pineapple tidbits and mandarin oranges into the Jell-O.

■ The festive first five notes of a Christmas song, followed by an abrupt second of silence before the accusatory “Tomorrow! You’re not allowed to listen to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving!” (Someone is always a stickler about this.)

And then there’s this one: the skritch skritch of a can opener, the shukka shukka of a knife being worked around its interior perimeter and then slllloooooorrp! Followed by — in spirit, at least — a mighty sproi-oi-oi-oi-oiiiiiiing!

Yes, the jellied cranberry sauce has plopped into another Thanksgiving dinner, retaining the ringed impressions of the can in which it began its life. Put it onto the fanciest of silver serving dishes, the loveliest of cut crystal plates, and it’s still jiggly and upright and can-shaped.

There’s always that moment of having to knock the cranberry log (yep, that’s what it’s called. From the Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce label: “To remove product intact, insert a flat knife between the cranberry log and back of the can to release the vacuum seal, invert and shake”) onto its side. Like a trembling cranberry tree: Timberrrrr!

There’s not much to be done with it. A 1942 Ocean Spray print ad advised sending away for a special turkey-shaped cookie cutter and serving cranberry slice turkeys. “There’ll be ‘oh’s’ and ‘ah’s’ aplenty when you bring on the Thanksgiving cranberry sauce cut in turkey shapes.”

Sure thing: “Ah, is that a cranberry turkey? Oh. It is.” At least the cranberry turkey eaters could be content in knowing the jiggly sensation came in a victory glass container.

But where does that leave the modern Thanksgiving dinner preparer and eater? 
Ten thousand desperate food editors, dreading the annual need to put a fresh spin on more than 300 years of tradition, would discard the inglorious log entirely. Failing that, they resort to sleight-of-hand and camouflage. Dice it up into teeny, tiny pieces and fold it into, um, something else! Put it in the blender and then accidentally drop the blender and break it! Claim you forgot to buy it when you went to the store!

Nothing doing, desperate food editors. According to Ocean Spray, Americans consume 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce every holiday season. In fact, it accounts for 75 percent of cranberry sauce sales.

All this for a fruit that bounces. Yes, cranberries bounce, and is it ever a particularly good idea to eat food that does? They are deceptively difficult to string for the Christmas tree, Norman Rockwell visions giving way to lots of swearing and armor-like skin that often refuses to be pierced with a needle. They taste dry. They grow in bogs.

Yet, Americans eat about 400 million pounds of them a year, according to the U.S. Cranberry Marketing Committee, 20 percent of that amount during Thanksgiving week.

In the 1500s and probably earlier, Native Americans were grinding cranberries into pemmican. They introduced the bouncing berry to the Pilgrims, and cranberries were present at the first Thanksgiving meal.

That they are now most often consumed as pre-dried Craisins or as a can-shaped jelly log speaks to the blessings of convenience that accompany prosperity and innovation. Enjoy the taste of cranberries without having to boil/mash/swear over them!

Thus, according to Cranberry Marketing Committee, the first cranberry sauce was marketed in 1912. Now, more than 94 percent of Thanksgiving dinners include it.

It is the opposite of haute cuisine. In spirit, it is a pink lawn flamingo, best stored in Tupperware, gelatinous in the manner of cold gravy, irresistible to chubby little fingers: “Use your fork! We’re at grandma’s!”

And maybe that’s why it’s always on the table, every year, gleaming dimly in the glow of the best dishes, possibly candles, the circle of friends and family around the table.

Thanksgiving dinner is sacrosanct, and despite all the attempted nouveau cuisine inroads, it is turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and yams with marshmallows on top. It is some iteration of green beans (probably the casserole with fried onions on top) and sparkling cider.

It is consistency amid change — the hours of preparation, unchanged from year to year. The recipes of generations, which taste like nothing so much as security and home. The chaos in the kitchen, the roughhousing in the living room. Black olives on the end of every finger, received with snorting giggles and ultimately hissed admonishment to cut it out.

It is a kiddie table and meaningful grace, said from a thankful heart. It is pants unbuttoned, maybe a fight or two, a tremendous mess of dirty dishes, leftovers stowed in the fridge for Day 2. It is pie, and it is jellied cranberry sauce.

It is tradition, and deserves a little respect. Jellied cranberry sauce has been on the table for decades, and it is weird, and it is pretty delicious on day-after turkey sandwiches, and it’s still the ghost of a can even after it’s sliced and laid artfully on a nice plate.

It speaks to the days when preserved food was a miracle, when free time shrank as the workforce grew, when convenience became the prize, when aspics were a thing that people ate. Probably at bridge club.

It is jiggly, it is consistent and it is a part of the whole, and Thanksgiving dinner with be less without it.


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