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!