I can absolutely forgive you for serving canned cranberry sauce if you’re living in an underground bunker while cockroach-people feast on the remains of our collapsed civilization, if everyone but you has been raptured, or if you’re stranded at a research station in Antarctica with one other person, and it’s the only thing standing between you and cannibalism. But the rest of you have no excuse.
Even I will admit that it’s fun to see the blob wetly plop out of the can like a Slinky made of Jello. But if you can stir and have a working stove, you can make a vastly better, healthier sauce that looks like a bowl of edible jewels. It takes three ingredients and 15 minutes of mostly hands-off time.
Imagine you’re on vacation in New York City, surrounded by real Jewish delis. As you walk down the street, the heavenly scent of fresh bagels makes your stomach growl.
“Too much time and money!” you think. Instead, you ride a bus to a large suburban grocery store, where you grab a bag of frozen store-brand bagels. Back in the city, you triumphantly defrost a bagel-shaped piece of cardboard, feeling good about the two dollars you saved, and the line you didn’t stand in.
Sounds crazy, right? So then why are you still buying cranberries that were picked in your county, probably shipped to a factory on the other side of the country (there is a factory in Washington, but most Ocean Spray products are made in Wisconsin and Massachusetts) adulterated with corn syrup and reduced to a metal-flavored gelatinous log, only to be shipped thousands of miles back to your grocery store?
Probably because after devising a way to turn substandard berries in something with a lengthy shelf-life, the crafty geniuses in Big Cranberry worked to convince you, the consumer, that cranberry sauce is both a non-negotiable element of the holiday table and a time-consuming, difficult-to-make delicacy better left to the pros. If you’ve been eating the canned stuff your whole life, you may have reasonably concluded it’s an obligatory dish no one actually likes, like salad on pizza night, and is therefore not worth any amount of effort. It’s a vicious cycle.
Canned cranberry sauce is perhaps the biggest Thanksgiving con, but it’s not the only one.
When I was in kindergarten, we put on a Thanksgiving play. I was one of the pilgrims, so my mom dressed me up in a long black skirt and white blouse, and, no doubt, a blazer with massive shoulder pads. The “Indians” wore paper bags with armholes and fringes cut in them and lipstick warpaint on their cheeks. We were nice to each other. We pretended to eat together, and thus, racism was solved. Or so I thought.
I was always pretty sure the destitute, clueless and half-dead pilgrims didn’t contribute much during that first year in Massachusetts. Within a few years, I had grown suspicious of the idea that the pilgrims quickly settled into a peaceful and mutually-beneficial coexistence with the natives. But I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know much about what really happened until I started researching this column.
In the fall of 1620, the Mayflower arrived in present-day Cape Cod, carrying about 100 members of strict Calvinist sects who were looking to escape the oppression that kept them from practicing their oppressive religion. A few of the women were pregnant, others had infants and small children. Many were malnourished and addled with scurvy. In addition to silly hats and uncomfortable shoes, they brought tuberculosis and pneumonia to the New World, but little else. Supplies had run perilously low, and they had no clue how to live in the New England climate.
It’s disingenuous to say the Indians welcomed them — they didn’t have a choice.
A group of 34 passengers and indentured servants went ashore, where they found an empty summer village belonging to the Nauset people. Noticing some mounds underneath the snow they started digging. Some historians say they found corn and other grains which they “borrowed,” but later paid back. Others say they moved up and down the coast that first winter, looting the Natives Americans’ stores and, because they weren’t especially discerning about which mounds they dug up, desecrating Native graves. A first encounter with the Nauset in December predictably went badly. They beat feet for Plymouth.
A Wampanoag leader named Massasoit took pity on the Pilgrims when their food ran low that winter. Nonetheless, half of them died.
The event we now call Thanksgiving didn’t occur until the following year, when the 53 surviving Pilgrims hosted a three-day feast to celebrate their first successful harvest. Records show 90 Native Americans attended.
It was right that they should make up the bulk of the guests, because the Pilgrims owed the fact that they had food to Squanto, the last surviving member of the Patuxet tribe, who taught them to catch eels and grow corn. That Squanto was willing to help them was a small miracle. Several years before, an English explorer had kidnapped him and taken him to Spain, where he was sold into slavery. Eventually, he escaped and sailed back to New England. By then, his entire tribe had been wiped out by a terrible pestilence.
Four Pilgrim women did most of the cooking, or at least got most of the credit. The menu included cod, bass, venison and wild turkey.
Thanksgiving was celebrated sporadically after that, but it didn’t become a regular gig for a very long time. George Washington proclaimed it a holiday in 1789, but nearly 100 years passed before Abraham Lincoln made it an official federal holiday in 1863.
Some New England tribes did eat cranberries, usually in pemmican. They also used them to make dyes. The Pilgrims quickly adapted the process of eating them, but the amount of backbreaking working that goes into a cranberry harvest clearly was not lost on them because the tried to make the Wampanoag do the work. In “The Clear Sunshine of the Gospel,” a 1648 book about efforts to convert the Indians to Christianity, preacher John Elliot complained about how hard it was to make Indians do their work for them. As it turned out, the Wampanoag preferred hunting and fishing to both abject servitude and joining a church that required them to pay fines for “sinnes” as diverse as not wearing their hair “comeley, as the English do,” forgetting to knock before entering a white guy’s house and making “a great noyse by howling” at funerals.
Over the course of the 1800s, cranberries and cranberry sauce became more popular on holiday tables in both the U.S. and England, but canned cranberry sauce didn’t appear until about 1912. Few saw any need for it, as cranberries had a long shelf life and were easy enough to prepare at home. Many saw them as more of a health tonic than a treat. According to a 1918 newsletter from the National Commercial Gas Association, “One old woman said, ‘If it were not for cranberries me and Phil would be liver-yellow all the winter.’ It never occurred to them to buy cranberry sauce or any other product that can be simply and easily made…” By the end of World War Two however, America had developed a fascination with canned foods. In 1945, the demand for canned sauce was “tremendous.”
“Ocean Spray disappears from the retail shelves as fast as it is put there,” the author of the Cranberry Cooperative News wrote.
When I lived in South Texas, far from my own family, I celebrated with my then-boyfriend’s large extended family. Like most South Texas families, his family lived on both sides of the Mexican border. Their Thanksgiving tables looked decidedly different. There was turkey, but also maybe barbecued brisket or “carne guisada,” a ubiquitous Tex-Mex dish of stewed beef in gravy. It wasn’t unusual to find a “Chocoflan” — a beloved, rubbery amalgamation of chocolate cake and caramel custard — in lieu of pie.
My then-boyfriend’s late father was known as “Mario Grande” to distinguish him from his son Mario Jr. When he heard that I planned to make cranberry sauce, he balked.
“Only if you peel them,” he told me. This funny, salt-of-the-earth man who carried tiny, fiery chiles in his pocket when he went to restaurants didn’t think twice about chasing a bite of roasted jalapeño with a shot of tequila, or popping the eye out of a roasted sheep, but he was horrified by the idea of eating cranberries, and he let it be known. I made a double-portion anyway, and saw him timidly taste the sauce during dinner, out of politeness to me. When I came back the next day, I went to the fridge, looking forward to eating some leftover sauce. It was gone. Mario Grande had eaten the entire dish of sauce in the middle of the night.
He died very suddenly a couple years later, and though the boyfriend and I each moved on to happy new relationships, I still think fondly of his father every time I eat this sauce. Here’s to you, Mario Grande. May all the cranberries in heaven be peeled.
Make this the night before so it can gel up over night.
1 bag of fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
About 1 to 11/2 cups dried apricots
A strip of orange peel (optional)
Rinse the berries in cold water and pick out any bad berries, twigs, etc. Cut the dried apricots in half.
Put the berries in a saucepan. Add just enough water to reach the top of the berries. Add the sugar, apricots and the orange peel if you’re using it. Turn it on to medium high, and when it gets warm, stir to dissolve the sugar.
Let it come to a boil and simmer away. After about ten minutes, you will start to hear popping sounds, as the cranberry skins split. Keep going until about five minutes after they stop popping. Cranberries have a lot of pectin in them, so the sauce will thicken up considerably and the flavor will mellow a bit as it chills overnight. But if it looks way too thin, simmer a few minutes more.
Let it cool, then put it in the fridge until the following day. If you have a big family, make a double batch. It won’t go to waste.