My mother’s well-worn gray metal recipe box still sits in my kitchen holding the secrets of 60 years of cooking. Each Thanksgiving I page through the index cards that are marked with food-stained memories of holiday meals gone by. I flip to the card labeled “Grama Van’s Cranberry Sauce,” and get started on my Thanksgiving preparations.
Both of my grandmothers were excellent cooks. Grama VanDenBerg (Dutch) and Grama Fritsch (German) both lived in small rental bungalows in the working-class section of Milwaukee. They were both widows at the age of 55, living on limited incomes, but insisted upon preparing elaborate Thanksgiving feasts for our family.
Grama VanDenBerg’s cranberry sauce far outshines that gelatinous perfectly formed cylinder that slips out of the Ocean Spray can. The 25-year-old sausage grinder that sat on her kitchen counter held the secret to grinding the raw sauce into a blend of oranges, sugar and raw cranberries.
The raw, uncooked flavor was so addicting that when my cousin and I ate the entire bowl, Grama Van would go back into her tiny kitchen to fetch yet another Mason jar full of the tart mix. I am including Grama VanDenBerg’s recipe (original dated 1960), which is deceptively simple, improves with age and will keep in a large Mason jar for at least two weeks, if it lasts that long. The only modern twist is that, unless you own a sausage grinder, you can substitute a food processor or heavy-duty blender to process the mix.
FRESH CRANBERRY SAUCE from Edna VanDenBerg, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1960
- One bag fresh cranberries
- Two navel oranges
- One cup sugar
Wash and clean cranberries, removing those that feel soft. Wash and quarter oranges, removing pits and fibrous tissue and chop into one-inch pieces. Do not peel. Working in batches, add one cup cranberries with one cup orange pieces and process in pulsing action, just until chunky. Add ½ cup sugar and repeat process with rest of bag and remaining pieces of orange, adding sugar to taste. (Note: If you don’t care for the taste of orange rind, you can peel oranges prior to processing.) Prepare at least two days prior to serving.
CALIFORNIA SALAD FOR THANKSGIVING
Here, in Southern California, the nontraditional surprise to my Thanksgiving menu will be an heirloom tomato salad from Valdivia Farms in Carlsbad. When I lived in Wisconsin, and later Upstate New York, tomatoes were out of season in November, so finding these specialty tomatoes came as a complete surprise.
The Valdivia family is one of the produce vendors at the Carlsbad Farmers Market, which is held every Wednesday on State Street from 3 to 6 p.m. Lulu and husband Jesus Medina proudly display a large variety of heirloom tomatoes, including Cherokee Purple, Pink Brandywine, Great White, Hawaiian Orange and Striped Zebra, and patiently wait as customers choose the perfect fruit for their salad.
The first time I tasted their yellow/white tomato, I was seated at my kitchen counter, slowly slicing one piece at a time, adding only Kosher salt, until I had eaten the entire tomato. For a family gathering, I would serve a variety of tomatoes, sliced on a serving platter dressed with only Kosher salt and no added dressing.
Be sure to give each guest a separate salad plate, so as not to be lost in the larger turkey spread.
CARRY ON TRADITIONS
I asked my son what was his favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal. “Making the mashed potatoes and gravy, sitting around waiting for the turkey to cook, being with family and of course, the leftovers!”
What is my advice for the upcoming holiday? Search through those old recipe boxes to find at least one family recipe. As you are cooking, the aromas and flavors will take you right back to childhood. Funny how cooking does that!
I am very interested to hear from readers who would like to share their holiday family specialties. Please send them to me, and we will include them in future holiday articles. I can be reached at [email protected].
Jano is a horticulturist and former Director of the Cornell Master Gardener Program in Cooperstown, New York. She works on community gardens in North County and lives and cooks with her son in Vista.