I was about 6 when I had my first real cranberries. Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce was the staple “cranberry” food at Thanksgiving, an opaque cylinder you would slide from its can, slice into half-moons, and place on a glass plate as a garnish, next to the “spanish” and black olives.
We would have two dinners on that Thursday: the first at my mother’s mother’s home, and the second at my father’s aunt’s home. Grammie’s (the former) was a more familiar place – the same town, more frequent visits, etc. But my father’s aunt’s home was something a little more exotic. Aunt Gertie had married a 1st generation German man (we were irish-italian mutts) who had a catering business. Their home and land ran along a busy residential street in the adjacent town. On their land, they had a pear tree, a concord grape arbor, bankings overflowing with blackberries, always a vegetable and flower garden, a chicken coop, and a bed of the most lovely lilac-colored lily-of-the-valley.
Aunt Gertie was a very gentle, kind lady who loved me and my brother. We were the youngest children in the family for some time, and she would put everything else down when we came through the mudroom. She would find the cookies for my brother, and find a slice of Roman Meal bread for me. (My first brown bread; I’ve been hooked ever since.) I remember laying in the garden, Black-Eyed Susans resisting my attempts at gathering, and imagining the grape arbor as a new home.
But this is about Thanksgiving and cranberries and Gertie. When we arrived at her house in the early evening, we would be mostly full on turkey and soft vegetables, but my father and mother would each take a plate. And the six-year old saw a little dish full of wet rubies on the dining room table.
“What’s that, Aunt Gertie?”
“It’s cranberry-orange relish, Jan. Would you like to try some?” I nodded.
Aunt Gertie was a petite lady; her reach might not have been much more than mine. But she took my plate and next to the slice of Roman Meal bread, she dolloped the deep relish. I had never seen anything so red and sparkling. It had three ingredients: fresh cranberries, navel oranges, and white sugar to taste. She made it with a food mill, and let it sit so the red juice from the berries and sugar colored everything but the tiny bits of orange zest. It was gone in an instant; and then another spoonful.
After that, Aunt Gertie set aside a small bowl of the cranberry orange relish and a few slices of the bread for our arrival, just as she made sure there was freshly sugar-sprinkled buttered bread for my older cousin, and coffee made from a saucepan for my dad. She knew the worst suffering any mother could ever know, but bore it silently. I never knew of her first daughter’s death until my dad told me the story. And yet, whenever one of the “children,” my father included, walked into the house, she welcomed us as if we were hers, and had come home. Aunt Gertie, if you were still here, my kids would love you too.
Cranberry Orange Relish
It’s so simple, and beyond delicious. Much better with a day or at least a 1/2 day to rest.
- 12 ounces (a generous 2 cups) fresh cranberries
- 1/2 heavy navel orange, scrubbed and cut into 4 pieces
- 1/2 cup superfine granulated sugar (you will not need it all, I assure you)
Wash and pick through the cranberries. Pour into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a large blade. Place the top on the food processor and turn it on, full speed. You can use the pulse function if you want to take your time.
Once the berries are chopped, add the orange wedges. The juice from the oranges will start to bring down the cranberry pieces into the blades, which is what you want. You want to grind the oranges – there should be no big chunks of orange rind Now sprinkle some of the sugar through the feeding tube. What was choppy and stiff should now roll with the movement of the blades. Stop the food processor, remove the lid, and taste the relish. Add sugar to taste, and blend again.
The texture is going to be wet and mushy – if you’re there, you’ve got it. Now, scoop the relish into a container with a lid and refrigerate until 30 minutes before the meal is served.