You know the drill: Thanksgiving arrives, the family gathers, and everyone gets together to make a ridiculously huge amount of food that will never, ever, in anyone’s wildest imagination, be finished off in one sitting.
With my family, it was, of course, turkey, gravy, dressing, mashed potatoes, yams and green beans. My aunt made broccoli casserole that, to this day, I believe contained some sort of synthetic addictive drug, because I couldn’t stop eating it. Corn often made an appearance, and, of course, there were desserts, such as pumpkin and pecan pies.
Oh yeah, and the Thanksgiving abomination: jellied cranberry sauce from a can.
You see, as much as I always enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner, I never understood why that jiggly, purple goo had to make an appearance. In my family, it was not homemade, but instead, it got poured straight from the can onto a pseudo-fancy, clear serving dish (like that’s going to make it better), and you could see the indentations of the rims from in the can. I can still see this thing in my mind’s eye, an amalgamation from, year after year, decade after decade, being faced with this strange and inexplicable holiday tradition.
But there’s a reason why this goop, this gel from hell (that families should have the decency to at least turn into cranberry Jell-O shots) is part of Thanksgiving. And there is a reason why it’s presented in such a disgusting way.
For starters, the cranberry is indigenous to North America, and it was Native Americans who first harvested and used the berry for food and for dye. When settlers landed here from western Europe, it was natural that they would follow the lead of the natives.
Now, legend has it that there was a very first meal for giving thanks in 1621 that involved both of these races, and tradition tells us turkey was served (although historians figure it could have been chicken, duck, goose or something else). Because cranberries were prevalent in diets in that time and place, it was assumed cranberries probably also were involved.
Problem is, cranberries are harvested for only a couple of months between September and November (another reason they were likely present for that alleged first fall dinner). So, in 1912, a guy named Marcus L. Urann came up with the idea to juice cranberries for canning, creating an opportunity for longer shelf lives and widespread sales. This helped everyone have access to cranberries for Thanksgiving and potentially year-round.
Naturally, Urann soon had competitors for his product, and a group of competing companies finally merged in the late 1950s to form a company called Ocean Spray, a brand that focuses on cranberry sauces and drinks to this day.
Thanks, Marcus, for terrorizing my childhood holidays with your purple slime. I hated it all during my childhood.
I swore long ago I would never try cranberry sauce again. But for the sake of this column, and the knowledge that my taste buds have matured over the years, I decided to buy a can of the vile gunk and give it a try on a fresh palate.
You never know, right?
I even got the Ocean Spray brand, just to make sure not to be torpedoed by some rank-and-file wannabe.
Back in the day, the canned stuff was just cranberries, sugar and water. But I read the label on my brand new can, and the second ingredient on the list was high fructose corn syrup. Another turnoff, and it almost made me turn back. But I made a commitment to myself, so I opened the can, turned it upside down over a plate and — just as I had remembered — there came a horrid sucking sound, such as an alien bursting from someone’s chest.
There were the ridges, and there was the gross, jiggling, and I thought, “It’s as though Thanksgiving has been the victim of the ultimate troll.” So, do I take a bite with a knife? A spoon? Slurp it through a straw? How do you eat something that clearly is not food? I chose a knife and took a healthy-sized bite.
Imagine if the devil burped up a SweetTart, and that’s about what it tasted like to me. Tart, yet sickly sweet, and with a weird, tinny flavor that fights with a muted earthiness. A terrifying terroir, if you will. And the texture, after it slid down my throat, was like someone lined the inside of my mouth with wallpaper paste.
And people make fun of me for eating raw oysters?
So, yeah, I still hate cranberry sauce. And that is the absolute last time I will ever taste it again, excluding some possible apocalyptic situation in which canned, jellied cranberries are all that’s left. Even then, I might choose Soylent Green. If you don’t know what that is, look it up. But before you do, please pass the potatoes.