Taking Sides

October 30, 2013 | By | Comments (1)
Illustration by Gracia Lam

Illustration by Gracia Lam

Some dishes—no matter how bad—show up every holiday season.

Every Southern family has one. The dreaded, time-honored dish. The squash casserole or giblet stuffing recipe that has been passed down generation after generation and must be prepared every Thanksgiving come ham hock or high water. This dish generally comes with a name. “Aunt Ida’s potato soup.” Or “Meemaw’s succotash soufflé.” It is also, as a rule, not very good.

In our home, said dish was never bequeathed a formal title, but it suffered no lack of power as a result. It was called, quite simply, “The Cranberry Salad,” and it had to be served every Thanksgiving even though A) only 1 out of 10 diners actually liked the taste, and B) it took longer to make than stalking, killing, and roasting the turkey.

The recipe—which has as many complicated steps as an Escher drawing and contains fruit, Jell-O, nuts, and what seems like 20 more fundamentally incompatible ingredients—can take more than a day to assemble, especially if you use fresh cranberries, which is the only kind my mother would permit, even if procuring fresh cranberries meant driving six hours to Miami.

“Just get them!” she would bark at anyone in the kitchen, eyes glazed in a cranberry-salad fever.

For years I naively suggested that perhaps making The Cranberry Salad was more trouble than it was worth. This folly was always met with agonizing glares from my mother along with a speech about family, history, and how the not making of The Cranberry Salad would somehow equate to kicking my great-grandmother in the uterus.

“It’s not even her recipe!” I’d exclaim, feverishly chopping the green apples.

“But she made it!” my mother would shoot back, snipping marshmallows with scissors because buying miniature marshmallows was “cheating.”

The Cranberry Salad was such a formidable tradition that it spawned its own baby traditions. The “arguing over who had to make it” tradition. The “it takes up too much space in the fridge so now we have to empty the dang thing” tradition. And of course, the “grimly pretending to enjoy it” tradition. (The last was further complicated by the fact that The Cranberry Salad rested atop an iceberg lettuce leaf on its own plate, thus making it impossible to bury it under a drift of mashed potatoes. If you didn’t choke it down, everybody could see.)

I choked it down. And the funny thing is, I still do. And I expect my girls to do the same. Because that, too, is a tradition of sorts. And with any luck, one day my children and my sisters’ children will be arguing in a kitchen on Thanksgiving about The Cranberry Salad, and as they squabble, they will remember us in all our irrational, irritable, frenzied holiday-cooking glory.

There are worse things.

Like Uncle Al’s creamy mustard Brussels sprouts.


  1. Lori Streets Muldoon

    My Mamaw made cranberry salad every Thanksgiving and it sounds much like what you describe. Being from WV, with familial ties to the pottery belt, maybe the recipe has the same source. I appreciate your columns in Southern Living. Thank you for bringing West Virginia’s stories to my favorite magazine. They often bring this no nonsense litigator to tears.

    January 9, 2015 at 11:09 am

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