Grandma’s Thanksgiving Recipe – Tradition or Experiment?

As Thanksgiving approaches and Americans all over the country prepare to stuff their stomachs with their traditional family feasts, I decided to attempt to make my grandmother’s cranberry orange salad. We’re having Thanksgiving in Florida again this year, half the country away from my family in Michigan, but I wanted to try something new – something exciting and special.

I first had my grandma’s cranberry salad last year at Christmas (one of the two times a year I can afford to go home) and I was so obsessed with its tangy, sour delight, that it nearly surpassed my favorite Christmas food of all time – Aunt Jan’s make-ahead mashed potatoes. As I ate the cranberry goodness, I couldn’t help but feel so happy inside.  Yes, it is delicious. But I was so proud of my grandma for taking the time to make it and sharing it with our family, even though I’m sure it had gone unappreciated many Christmases before. I was proud of my grandma, that in her old age, with her shaky hands and severe arthritis, she would take the time to make this family recipe – a recipe she learned from her own mother, many years ago.

I emailed my mom a few weeks ago, inquiring about the recipe (I didn’t have it written down anywhere). My mom, in turn, had to call my grandma (which I suppose I could/should have done in the first place) to decipher the directions on the worn recipe card. My mother and my grandmother discussed the process, step-by-step, as my grandma tried to recall exactly how her mother used to make the salad. Later that night, I had a wonderfully vague, completely confusing recipe in my inbox:

1/2- package fresh cranberries (think this is 1lb; or it could be 1/2 of a 1lb- package. . . who knows?)
 1 orange –  do not peel, but you might want to slice into sections so you can remove seeds
 1 apple, cored but not peeled
 3/4 cup sugar
 1 package orange jello (unclear if it is small pkg or larger pkg. . . “depends on how many cranberries you use, so I guess if you use all of the package of cranberries you should use a large package of jello”. . . don’t you think?)
 1 1/2 cups of water
 1/2 teaspoon orange rind
– She grinds the cranberries, orange, and apple in an old-fashioned, hand-cranked grinder. It produces a lot of wonderful, very sour juice. Save the juice for enjoyment later.  Don’t know if a food processor would work, but worth a try. Add the sugar. Set aside.
 Add boiling water to jello mix. She did not remember if it is 1 1/2 cups of boiling water, or 1 cup boiling water (as per package instructions) and 1/2 cup cold water to help it set up. Chill the jello until just partially set. Mix in the cranberry mix.
 “Then you must do something with the extra 1/2 teaspoon of orange rind. . . this is Grandma Burnett’s recipe from Arlington, I remember copying it in her apartment and she wouldn’t have had that in there if she didn’t use it. . . no, I don’t remember how I make it. . .” Maybe the orange rind is sprinkled on top? Or mixed in for even more orange flavor?  Give it a try.

I glanced over the ingredients a while ago, excited that I could find most at the produce stand around the corner. (Even Michigan-grown cranberries!). But as I read each line tonight, attempting to make this divine dish, I realized one thing: My family is not good at communication. I don’t have a hand grinder or a food processor – so a blender had to do. Mixing ingredients, I realized that I had something more like cranberry soup – not a scoop-able mixture that will soon resemble a salad. Frustrated, I thought about just freezing the cranberry mixture and eating it like sorbet tomorrow morning. I thought about using it in my smoothies or even putting it over pancakes. But no, that was not the recipe. That was not my grandmother’s recipe. While the instructions leave lots of room for improvisation, this is still my family’s recipe for cranberry orange SALAD, not sorbet, smoothies or pancakes. I called my mom to clarify directions, discussing the process step-by-step, as she tried to recall exactly how my grandma used to make it. Describing what I was staring at in my mixing bowl (and what I was wearing all over my shirt), it was debatable as to whether or not my work would turn out to be edible.

As tempting as it was to call it a night with what I had, I wanted to try and make this delectable holiday salad my grandma ate growing up as  kid – a recipe that my mom remembers from her own childhood – a recipe that (if I can get it right), will be a part of my own family’s holiday traditions someday.

As I write this post, it is still unclear if I even have cranberry orange salad or just cranberry orange goo. But at least I can call my grandma tomorrow, wish her a happy Thanksgiving and let her know that one of her fond childhood memories is a now part of another generation.

Happy feasting!

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