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Grandmother’s Christmas Cranberries

November 27, 2011

The recipe appears in the small navy-blue binder my grandparents gave my mother at her wedding.  It’s written in my grandmother’s sloping cursive, the dark blue ink neither faded nor smudged.  The title: Grandmother’s Christmas Cranberries.

I’ve read the recipe enough times that I can recite it from memory.  Pick over and wash cranberries.  Add sugar and boiling water and let stand for five minutes.  Bring to boil and boil for five minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for five minutes.  Then boil again five minutes.  Pour into star mold and chill overnight.

When dinner comes, we turn them out onto a mirrored silver platter.  The cranberries seem to glow with their own light; the magic of sugar and boiling water transform them from hard, dull, sour berries into a glimmering translucent conglomerate of berries and pectin, scarlet and tart.

Making the cranberries is my job.

Before it was my job, it was my mother’s, or sometimes my father’s.  Before that, my grandmother made them.  Before my grandmother, my mother’s grandmother – who graces the title of the recipe – must have worked this alchemy.  I don’t know whether she learned it from her mother, or from her friend across the road, or altered it herself, year by year, until she judged it perfected.  But that’s at least four generations of women, one Thanksgiving and Christmas after another, each watching the clock as the cranberries foamed and transformed: Let stand five minutes.  Bring to boil and boil five minutes.  Remove from heat and let stand for five minutes.  Then boil again five minutes. Pour into star mold and chill overnight.  How many prayers have been breathed over that aluminum star mold the next day, when the time came to turn the cranberry sauce out onto a plate?  God(s), please don’t let the cranberries fall apart this year.

It makes no difference to the taste, of course, but it feels like a good omen every time the star emerges unbroken: one of wholeness, of metamorphosis, and maybe of the approval of ancestors for continuing family traditions.

My cranberries have never failed to jell.

It’s a small ritual, this recipe, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.  I’m sure other people’s cranberry sauce/relish/jelly recipes are quite nice; I can well believe that orange zest complements the flavor well, and nuts might provide welcome variety in texture.  In contrast to my family’s carefully-timed method, Neil Gaiman boils the heck out of his for twenty-five minutes.  But I can’t read other people’s cranberry recipes without feeling a twinge of horror: He adds what? She stirs?  He skims off the pink stuff?  Oh, the horror.  It’s not the recipe of my ancestors, you see – fine for other people, heresy if I were to adopt it myself.

I was a guest this Thanksgiving.  There were two cranberry relishes: one with orange, the other frozen with horseradish.  Both were served in small bowls.  Someone else’s house, someone else’s ancestors; I can live with that, though I look forward to Christmas, when I will get my chance to enact the ritual.  The food at this Thanksgiving was all local, making this more a Thanksgiving of connecting to place than to time.  It’s fitting, since this is probably my last fall in this town that I never expected to love so deeply – the flaming trees on the hills, the yellow leaves that carpet paths in gold, the creeks that erode gorges down through time, the shining blue sky and stormy sky and the deep night sky whose stars blaze so brightly.  I will gladly eat the food of this land.  And as I do so I remember that some of my ancestors looked out over hills like these, too, before they went out West.  Just as my mind tracks the mantra of boil five minutes, so too do my feet track the paths my family has trod.  Though I will leave this place, forging my own path or following those of others, I will carry with me that same ritual of cranberries which others bore before me; and whether I end up in California or Canada or Croatia, if the cranberries jell, I will know that through genesis and transformation, my ancestors might still be with me.

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