Nancy arrived at her aunt’s house, clutching her Thanksgiving offering to her chest. As soon as she opened the front door and crossed the threshold, she could smell the delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen. To her right was her aunt’s living room, where she could see her extended family gathered for pre-dinner appetizers.
Before anyone noticed her arrival, Nancy dipped into the dining room to deposit her bowl onto the buffet table. Looking at the side dishes other guests had brought, she again felt uneasy about her recipe choice. She suspected that it was her tiny kitchen and questionable cooking skills that prompted Aunt Trish to ask her to bring cranberry sauce, a recipe that would be difficult to mess up. All she had to do was to follow the instructions on the package. Few ingredients, easy recipe, crowd favorite – what could go wrong?
The answer would have been nothing, had she not been listening to the radio Monday morning and heard NPR’s Susan Stamberg’s rich, dulcet voice describing her mother-in-law’s cranberry relish. Her recipe sounded simple enough and nothing like traditional cranberry sauce. Nancy thought it might be just the thing to impress her family. All she needed to do was to purchase a few additional ingredients: a small onion, sour cream, and horseradish.
Looking back, she realized she should have reconsidered when she read the first step: grind the raw berries and onion together. When she scanned the rest of the recipe for cooking instructions she found none. Odd, she thought. But Ms. Stamberg wouldn’t steer me wrong.
The night before, Nancy pulled out her little-used mini-chopper, cutting board, kitchen knife, mixing spoon, and her one serving bowl that had a plastic lid. Seeing everything laid out on her counter had been both scary and exhilarating. I can do this.
Since her chopper was small, she had to work in batches. As soon as one batch was reduced to chunks (do not puree, the recipe warned), she dumped it in the serving bowl and added more berries and onion to the chopper. When she finished, she admired the confetti of red and white bits for a moment before moving on to the next step.
She added the sour cream, sugar, and horseradish to the bowl and started to mix everything with her spoon. That’s when it hit her that she may have made a huge mistake. The more she blended, the more the mixture took on a bright pink hue. Oh my god, it looks like I’ve made a big bowl of Pepto Bismol.
She glanced at her watch and realized that it was too late to go back to the store and start over. She was going to have to push on. Following the directions, she covered the bowl and put it in the freezer to freeze overnight.
An hour before she was expected at her aunt’s house, she moved the bowl from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw. The overnight miracle she hoped for hadn’t happened: the concoction was just as pink as it was the night before. I will never hear the end of this.
The buffet table was crowded with the usual side dishes expected at Thanksgiving dinner, including—to Nancy’s relief—a few bowls of traditional cranberry sauce. Sitting among the other dishes, her chunky pink goo looked like a drunken harlot had appeared, uninvited, at a black-tie affair.
Nancy quickly forgot about her culinary catastrophe when she entered the living room and was immediately engulfed by her relatives. She loved this time of year when holiday celebrations brought everyone together. After greeting her aunts, uncles, and cousins, Nancy made a beeline for her older sister and brother-in-law.
Seven Thanksgivings ago, when her sister, Anne, brought Marty home from college and introduced him as her boyfriend, Nancy was smitten. She loved how Marty could energize a room just by being there and envied his self-confidence. He expected people to like him, and they did. That he was funny, kind, and good to Anne, made Nancy love him even more. When Anne and Marty announced their engagement a few years later, Nancy knew that she was about to gain the big brother she had always wished for.
Soon, everyone was called into the dining room and took their traditional places at the large table. Aunt Trish placed a huge platter of sliced turkey in the middle, then distributed the side dishes to be passed around. Murmurs of anticipatory pleasure could be heard as the bowls moved from hand to hand, at least until Cousin Ned was passed the bright pink concoction.
“What the heck is this?”
“It’s cranberry relish,” Nancy said. “It has horseradish in it,” she added, hoping that piece of information would make the dish sound more enticing.
“Hmmm,” Ned responded, spooning out a tiny bit of the relish and depositing it on the very edge of his plate.
Nancy could feel her face grow hot as she watched her bowl move around the table. Some took a small amount, but most passed the bowl on without comment. Why did I have to try something different? When the bowl reached Marty, he looked straight at her, gave her a wink, and took a large scoop.
“This looks great,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear. “I bet it would be really good on the turkey.”
Nancy gave him a grateful smile and was pleased to see several people taking larger scoops as the bowl continued to be passed around.
After everyone had helped themselves to turkey and sides, the dining room filled with lively conversation and the sounds of utensils clinking against plates.
Amid a friendly debate with her uncle about who was going to win the World Cup, Nancy’s attention was distracted when she heard, “This pink stuff is really good. Have you tried it?” She looked to her left and saw that Cousin Judy’s turkey slices were covered with her relish. Glancing around the table, she noticed bright pink scoops on almost all of the plates. Suddenly, her embarrassment from bringing a dish no one wanted was replaced by a feeling of pride. Her cranberry relish was a hit.
Of all the Thanksgiving traditions she enjoyed, one of Nancy’s favorites was helping her aunt clean up after the guests were gone. It gave them some quiet time to talk about the evening and share family updates the other might have missed. Standing at the sink, Nancy picked up her bowl from the stack of dishes waiting to be washed and was happy to find most of the relish gone. After she washed the bowl, she handed it over to her aunt for drying.
“Thank you for bringing your relish,” Aunt Trish said, smiling. “It was really different, but in a good way. Can I ask you to bring it again for Christmas dinner? I think it would be perfect with the roast I’ll be serving. You just may have started a new family tradition.”
Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish
2 cups raw cranberries, washed
1 small onion
½ cup sugar
¾ cup sour cream
2 tablespoons horseradish
Grind cranberries and onion together until chunky (not pureed). Add everything else. Mix. Put in a container and freeze. An hour or so before serving, move the relish from the freezer to the refrigerator to thaw.
It will be thick, creamy, and shocking pink.
Makes 1 ½ pints.
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