Cranberry condiment conundrum

November 18, 2009|By Rob Kasper

On a day that is supposed to bring families together, this dish has a tendency to push them apart.

I am talking about cranberries, those tart little berries that everyone feels obligated to serve in some form on Thanksgiving Day.

I have nothing against cranberries. I like them, as long as they're fixed the "right way."

That means with fresh grated ginger, minced garlic and a can of cranberry jelly. This produces a chutney that has zest, fruit and presence. It livens up the slices of roast turkey served on Thanksgiving Day and is positively essential as a flavorful lubricant for the leftover roast turkey sandwiches that are served ad infinitum on the days after the feast.

I don't understand why every red-blooded, bog-loving American does not immediately embrace this treatment of cranberries. I got the recipe from my dear friend, a true American, who happens to have been born in India, Madhur Jaffrey. OK, I never met her, but I feel I know her since I have used her cranberry recipe for years.

In particular, I don't understand why my brothers don't welcome this chutney onto their plates. Maybe it is sibling rivalry, which can creep into family gatherings. When my brothers and I get together at Thanksgiving, we agree on many things. Watching football on television is an essential part of the holiday. There has to be at least one pickup basketball game to teach the offspring how to correctly play the game. And cold beer soothes sore muscles and bruised egos.

But we can't agree on cranberries. Back when there were four of us - we have since lost one brother - there were four cranberry dishes featured on the Thanksgiving table. There was a square-shaped gelatin salad with nuts, a whole-berry sauce, the familiar cylindrical shape of canned cranberry jelly with the indentations of the can still showing and my hallowed chutney.

As siblings do, we make fun of each others' selections. Mine has been derided as the "celebrity sauce," because the recipe comes from Jaffrey, a noted Indian movie actress and a cookbook author.

I have since learned that this cranberry divide afflicts other households. It is not as contentious as the struggle over stuffing. There will probably never be rapprochement among the corn bread, oyster, sausage and chestnut contingents. But the cranberry contretemps linger.

Cranberry aficionados, and I count myself in their ranks, can be persistent, provincial and quick to e-mail.

The other day, for instance, I was talking with a learned college professor in North Carolina about turkeys, when she quickly switched the subject of the conversation to her favorite cranberry sauce.

"Is this that Susan Stamberg sauce?" I asked, referring to a recipe that the National Public Radio correspondent has repeated, sometimes to music, every Thanksgiving since 1971.

"No!" the learned professor replied, "that one is the color of Pepto-Bismol." Cranberry sauce devotees can be catty.

The learned professor then e-mailed her treasured cranberry sauce recipe, which has lemon peel and orange marmalade. Upon receipt of her cranberry recipe, I e-mailed her mine. She sniffed at my recipe's inclusion of canned cranberry jelly. That, to me, was a sign that she was a "bouncer."

Whole cranberries bounce when they are fresh. Therefore people who insist on using fresh, whole cranberries in their Thanksgiving dishes are, in my mind, forever classified as "bouncers."

I found another group of "bouncers" among the editors of Everyday Food, a magazine in the Martha Stewart empire. In an e-mail exchange, food editor Anna Last and her crew said that while some of them favored a cranberry relish and others preferred a cooked sauce, all agreed the cranberry treatment had to be homemade. They, too, sent along their favorite recipe from the magazine's November issue. It calls for a mixture of orange juice, orange zest and whole berries.

In defense of my canned cranberry jelly, I point out that using this sentimental favorite produces the type of dish that everyone wants during the holidays, a dish that is traditional yet amazing. (I stole that description of the ideal holiday dish from Patrick O'Connell, chef and proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington in the mountains of Virginia. He, too, once sent me his favorite cranberry recipe. He, too, is a bouncer.)

It is not difficult for me to understand why people have such strong feelings about cranberry sauce. It is a part of a meal filled with ritual, tradition and sense memories.

What I have trouble understanding is how my brothers strayed from the path of cranberry correctness. I think they were influenced by their wives. Isn't that always the case?

This Thanksgiving, in a break with tradition, my brothers and I are staying put in our homes in Massachusetts, Kansas and Maryland.

The other day I realized that this meant there would be only one cranberry sauce at my family's Thanksgiving table. Even though it would be the one true sauce, it just didn't seem enough.

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