Releasing Cranberry Sauce into the Wild

This is a picture of cranberries filling a fountain in Vancouver, Canada, BC. No, I haven't the faintest idea.

This is a picture of cranberries filling a fountain in Vancouver, Canada, BC. No, I haven’t the faintest idea.

Well, here it is November again. At exactly midnight on Hallowe’en night, a giant cosmic switch clicks somewhere in the universe, and the retail locations that have been playing “Monster Mash” and “Thriller” immediately begin broadcasting Christmas carols. Down come the bats and cats, and up go the twinkly lights and Santas.

Somehow Thanksgiving, sandwiched between Hallowe’en and Christmas, has become the loser in the cold weather holiday popularity contest. There aren’t a lot of Thanksgiving songs. (I remember “We Gather Together” from long-ago church services, but that’s a hymn, and doesn’t enjoy the bouncy appeal of “Frosty the Snowman,” for example.) We may have our little Thanksgiving traditions (turkey, Aunt Letty’s sweet potato pudding with miniature marshmallows, football), but nothing like the avalanche of rituals, gifts, goodies and decorations that make the Christmas season so stressful—I mean, fun.

But I’m thinking about Thanksgiving now. Back in the day when I was helping my mother prepare Thanksgiving dinner, it was quite an elaborate occasion. My mother got out her white linen tablecloth, spread it over a pad on top of the dining room table, and ironed it in situ. She would ask me to create a centerpiece for the table. We usually had dried gourds and Indian corn squirreled away for this purpose, to which I added colorful fall leaves. (If I could find any by that time. We had a shortage of colorful fall leaves in Southern California.)

Then I set the table with my mother’s best flatware, laying soft, white damask napkins at each place. All the good serving pieces came out, and the carving knife and fork were laid at the head of the table for my father.

I had various duties in the kitchen as well—basting the turkey and so forth. One of my duties (or my sister’s) was to put cranberry sauce in a serving bowl. Cranberry sauce at my house came out of a can. The first time I was assigned this awesome responsibility, I carefully opened the can at both ends and ooshed the red jelly into my mother’s silver serving bowl, where it sat jiggling, perfectly retaining the form of the inside of the can. I popped a spoon in with it and bore it toward the table.

My mother stopped me. “Chop it up a little bit so that it doesn’t look like it just came out of a can,” she said. I dutifully stirred up the jelly until no trace of can could be seen, but I was puzzled. Everyone knew that cranberry sauce came out of a can, so why try to pretend that it didn’t?

I hated that cranberry sauce. I never ate it as a kid. I continued to loathe it as an adult, but I wondered if cranberry sauce made from fresh berries might be better? Many years ago, I heard Susan Stamberg talking on NPR about her mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving cranberry sauce. It sounded easy, and Ms. Stamberg seemed to like it, so I copied down the recipe and made it for Thanksgiving that year.

“Mrs. Stamberg’s Cranberry Sauce” turned out to be absolutely delicious. I will admit it is a rather alarming shade of Pepto-Bismol pink, but don’t let that put you off. It is sweet—but not too sweet—tart, and refreshing. It’s made with fresh cranberries and is simple to prepare.

The only problem is that my family refuses to eat it. They all think of cranberry sauce as the red jelly stuff that comes out of a can, and are dead-set against anything that calls itself cranberry sauce. I made a batch at Thanksgiving for a few years, but no one but me ever ate any of it and I had to throw the rest out, which seemed wasteful. So I stopped making it.

I have decided to release the recipe back into the wild, in the hopes that someone out there will try it and like it. You can find the recipe online by Googling “Mrs. Stamberg’s Cranberry Sauce,” but here it is:

Mrs. Stamberg’s Cranberry Sauce (thanks to Susan Stamberg)


2 cups fresh cranberries

1 small onion

½ cup sugar

¾ cup sour cream

2 tablespoons horseradish

Grind berries and onion together in the food processor. Add remaining ingredients and blend to a pleasing consistency.

That’s it! Five minutes to the best cranberry sauce you will ever taste. Mrs. Stamberg and I say so. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Book Review: “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

shepherds crown

Yesterday I finished Terry Pratchett’s last book, “The Shepherd’s Crown.”

[Pause to wipe unexplained moisture from eyes.]

First, I’m glad it was a Discworld story. I have enjoyed everything Pratchett has written on his own or in collaboration with someone else. But­—as with most of his readers, I suspect­—I adore Discworld. I adore its cast of thousands, many of whom have become old friends. I adore Discworld’s manic buffoonery, it’s defiance of science in favor of its own wacked magic, the humor and humanity of its inhabitants (many of whom are not actually human).

Second, I’m glad it was a Tiffany Aching story. The first Aching novel I read was “A Hat Full of Sky.” I didn’t realize it took place in Discworld. It seemed to exist in the wide spaces of the High Chalk, covered by an expanse of endless blue sky and connected to nothing else. I fell in love with Tiffany. And I enjoyed the stories of the other witches enormously. I loved the idea of witching as a profession. I loved that witches served the needs of their community, not for gain, but because somebody had to do it. I loved that they didn’t often use magic in the performance of their duties, but usually applied common sense, deep insight into the foibles of humanity, and—not infrequently—threats. You don’t have to actually turn someone into a toad if they truly, deeply believe that you will if they get so much as a hair out of line. I loved the tension between the tough old witches like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and the New Age witches with their tinkly amulets and sparkly dresses.

By the way, I am embarrassed that after reading all those books, it wasn’t until last night that I realized why Nanny Ogg was named Nanny Ogg. {Blush}

As world-building goes, Discworld is a shining, if unachievable example to other fantasy writers. It is so detailed and internally consistent that during the time I was immersed in a Discworld story, I believed in a flat world resting on the back of a giant turtle floating in space. I believed that Death was a kindly, inexorable presence in a black robe who SPOKE IN CAPITALS and rode a white horse named Binky. I believed that there was a City Watch consisting of a werewolf, a female dwarf, a troll, something called Nobby Nobbs, and the uncrowned King of Ankh-Morepork, headed by Commander Samuel Vimes. I believed, and if that isn’t magic, what is?

I had to look up the shepherd’s crown of the title. Shepherd’s crowns are fossilized sea urchins commonly found in the chalk downs of England. They have five ridges that meet in the center of the fossil, looking somewhat like the star on some species of sand dollar (a closely related animal). Apparently, the ridges looked like a crown to someone, if not to me. Back in the day, these fossils were thought to be magical charms against evil. In this story, a shepherd’s crown is passed down through the Aching family to Granny Aching, and finally to Tiffany. Because Tiffany belongs to the Chalk, the little fossil becomes a powerful talisman in her last fight against an invasion of evil elves from Fairyland. (Those who have read “Lords and Ladies” will remember that in Pratchett’s universe, elves are beautiful, glamorous, powerful—and the cruelest, nastiest creatures imaginable.)

The story is about what happens when people band together to fight a just cause. Traditional adversaries become allies. Strong becomes stronger. And Tiffany truly comes into herself as a witch. Beyond that, I’m not giving out any spoilers.

Is “The Shepherd’s Crown” Pratchett’s best Discworld novel? No, not in my opinion. However, I am absolutely certain it is the finest novel in any language or genre written by a man dying of a vicious form of Alzheimer’s Disease. I am certain he had lots of help here, but it is Pratchett’s voice and spirit that shine throughout the tale. It is his last love letter to humanity, and his last admonition to us to behave like witches—practical, wise, kind when called for and tough when not, taking up the burden of service because it is the right thing to do. “The Shepherd’s Crown” sums up what Terry Pratchett has been trying to tell us all along: “Do the right thing.”

Time for a snack. I’m going to have a rat on a stick, how about you?