Thursday, November 22, 2012
Cranberries Hate Me, And Now I Hate Them
Followers of this blog will know that some sort of food-related disaster almost always strikes me at Thanksgiving. If I was superstitious, and more self-centered, I'd assume the spirit of Thanksgiving is trying to demonstrate how my ancestors stole land they weren't entitled to when not giving Native Americans vermin-infested blankets for house-warming presents. House-warming presents for the homes the natives would eventually lose anyway to the douche bags who coughed on the blankets in the first place.
I know that's not true for a few reasons.
1) Thanksgiving isn't all about me. I'm self-centered, sure, but not pathologically so. I leave that to Betsy! The spirit of Thanksgiving has no reason to target me. (The spirit of Thanksgiving is like the ghost of Christmas past, except with turkeys.)
2) No one in my family made it to this country until the late 19th century/early 20th century. Not only did we never litter highways and make a Native American weep (in this case, a dry-eyed Italian American playing a weeping Native American), we never owned slaves. We couldn't: we not only missed the whole Civil War thing, we were too busy parking our cars on lawns beside our trailers so they could rust for decades, getting occasionally popped for a D&D (Drunk and Disorderly, or as my people called it, "Wednesday Night Fun Time"), and generally being as white trash as it was possible to be. We couldn't have focused all our energies on that and buying slaves while repressing Native Americans. It's exhausting to even think about.
Still, food-related weirdness happens to me on Thanksgiving. Which brings me to all the things we're not supposed to bring up in chat rooms and the like. Most of us know there are topics that are absolutely taboo: religion, abortion, a war (any war), politics, and, of course, canned cranberry sauce vs. homemade.
I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to talk it. Taboos, away! We are strictly canned cranberry people. (We're also strictly Stove Top stuffing people, but that's a whole other thing.) I had never seen a cranberry in the wild until I was in my twenties, and could never have picked one out of a line-up. ("Yeah, the shifty-eyed blackberry next to the little red berry I don't recognize. He stole my purse!") So my first Thanksgiving in New England was a shock. Not one, not two, but three kinds of homemade stuffing...one with sausage and one with oysters. Oysters! Sweet potatoes...without marshmallows! And multiple kinds of cranberry sauce...and not a single one of them looked like a can. Where was the deep red can-shaped wiggling cranberry jelly that made Thanksgiving? What the hell was wrong with these Communist pinko weirdos?
Well, after my nervous breakdown had passed and my sisters-in-law had combed all the non-Stove Top stuffing out of their hair, we managed to settle down and enjoy a weird weird weird Thanksgiving dinner.
Fast forward a few years, Anthony and I were married and living in Minnesota. Knowing he was homesick for a Cape Cod Thanksgiving, I made oyster stuffing. (Would not. Budge. On the cranberry jelly issue.) Which he ate appreciatively, but kindly said that in the future, he preferred my Stove Top version. "It's just...better," he mused. "I can't put my finger on why." I could! He was getting away from his weird weird weird Communist pinko weirdo roots. I was slowly saving him from oyster stuffing and non-can-shaped cranberry sauce!
Fast forward several more years, to yesterday, in fact. We were up at our cabin in Wisconsin, knowing our daughter would leave for college next year, knowing it was inevitable, knowing that even if she visited for Thanksgiving, it wouldn't be the same. We'd also had to smooth some in-law feathers ("we" = my husband; I just sort of watched the e-mail kerfluffle in horrified fascination), and you know it's not a family holiday unless someone's annoyed about something, or someone. All this, weirdly, made me homesick for my husband's Communist pinko weirdo roots. So I did it. I made homemade stuffing for the second time in decades.
And...I made...homemade...cranberry jelly. For the first time in ever.
And it was so, so horrible. Not the taste. The process. Oh God, the process. It took forEVER. And I suspected nothing when I made note of the recipe in the latest Martha Stewart Living. (It wouldn't be the first time that sly bitch tricked me into putting more effort in my cooking.) The recipe was a smooth jelly...a must for our family. If it can't be the can, it's at least got to be smooth and lump-free. This version wasn't just smooth, one of the ingredients was maple syrup. Maple syrup! Super duper New England-ey! And best of all, my parents had given me a copper fish jelly mold a few years ago (I collect copper cookie cutters. And egg cups. I cannot explain why.) so I even had a mold ready to go.
Okay! Ready! I knew I had to make it the night before, since it had to sit and solidify for 8 hours or overnight. Having zero interest in getting up at 8:00 a.m. and making non-can cranberry jelly, the night before it was. And thinks went pretty smoothly until it came time to smush the cranberries.
Ugh, ugh, ugh. I'd bought a potato ricer (another tip from Ms. Stewart...I really think she might have it in for me personally) but it was small...it would only smoosh half a cup of the sauce at a time. And I found out it I squeezed too hard, cranberries went everywhere, which is how I discovered it's really hard to get cranberries out of the hinges of my glasses. Squeeze, squirt, curse. That's how it went. For a long time. And when I'd scrape the squeezins' into a bowl, the parts of the ricer would flip back and forth, so cranberries were everywhere. It was a reply of the Psycho shower scene, complete with red goo and horrified screams. I eventually gave up on the ricer and grabbed my meat tenderizer, which weighs about nine pounds.
"Mom, can I use your laptop?"
"Go away. I mean, yes."
"For how long?"
"Go away. I mean, until after I have my bath."
"When's your bath?"
"When this GODDAMN CRANBERRY JELLY IS IN ITS MOLD IN THE FRIDGE AND IS SHUTTING UP!"
"...are you okay?"
My son kindly came to my aid, and quite liked mashing cranberries with the tenderizer. "This is fun!"
"It's not, but okay."
"I think it's gonna taste really excellent."
"It could be the best thing you ever put in your mouth, but I'm still not making it again." Never before had I appreciated what the cranberry canners must go through! Cranberry canners of America: I am so sorry. Tonight I gave thanks for you.
(You know it's time to take a step back and consider surrender when you're thinking, "You know what I would rather be doing right now? Debating abortion, war, religion, and politics on the Internet.")
Finally, into the greased mold it went. Which is when I noticed the mold was just a bit off-center, so that if I filled it all the way, precious cranberry juice would run out on the counter. After the hour of wringing every drop I could out of 24 ounces of fresh cranberries, I was unwilling to let even a speck go to waste.
"Tony! Come help me."
"Aww." My husband ambled good-naturedly into the kitchen. "I was gonna go lie down and take a nap to prepare for going to bed."
"Come here and help me before I kill all of you all of you all of you!"
Whoosh! There he was. He can move when he wants. "Okay, uh, what are you doing, exactly?"
I explained. We experimented with a few things, and finally realized that if we set the cranberry mold on (ironically) my Martha Stewart magazine and a pot holder, it would remain level and I could get all the juice in. Which is why the turkey, the cranberry jelly, the milk, the vegetables, the pies, and the November 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine chilled overnight in my fridge.
One last fast-forward, my very appreciative family is sitting down before the spread. "You made homemade stuffing and cranberry jelly?" my daughter asked, impressed.
"Sooo good," my son moaned around a mouthful of...well...everything. "Food coma. Going into food coma now."
"Oh, sweetie." I had based the turkey with apple cider and orange juice, which made the skin crispy and the gravy a bit tangy. "Oh, sweetie" was all my husband could manage.
But they were also apologetic: "I'm sorry, Mom."
"I know. It's okay. I'm not mad."
"It's just that it's sooooo good," my teenagers groaned, sucking down cranberry jelly like it was mother's milk. Actually, if memory serves, with way more enthusiasm than they ever greeted mother's milk.
"It's so cranberry-ey and maple-ey."
"And it's in the shape of a fish!"
"We're sorry, but it's really fantastic."
"I hate to help them gang up on you," my husband sighed, "but it's really really good."
"We'll make it next year," the kids promised. "You won't have to do a thing. Except, uh, the rest of the meal."
I smiled, because the reason I'd gone to the trouble of making it from scratch in the first place was because I was already lonesome for the teen who hadn't left for college yet, and the teen who was showing in a hundred different ways that he, too, was growing up. We'll make it next year was the nicest thing they could have said, and it had nothing to do with never wanting to go near a fresh cranberry again. Because things change, and that's okay, but some things don't, and that's okay, too.
"So save the recipe," they begged, and I had to smile again.
"Don't worry about that," I replied. "The magazine's still in the fridge."