Last year I read a piece in Southern Living magazine that had me laughing out loud. “Taking Sides” by Allison Glock described a formidable family tradition in the form of The Cranberry Salad, a side dish that nobody liked but was made and served each Thanksgiving day as a matter of family tradition.
I could relate. I was already acquainted with The Cranberry Salad tradition, though in my family the salad was made with an eggnog layer and was served at Christmas dinner rather than Thanksgiving. Ours had not yet spawned any of its own “baby traditions” but Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad was a signature recipe. Festive and interesting, it was associated with Aunt Hen's table. Not only was it known as her recipe in our small community, Aunt Hen submitted the recipe to Southern Living magazine where it was published in the November 1986 issue.
While this detail added a certain gravitas to Aunt Hen’s recipe among her contemporaries, it did nothing to make it any more palatable from my point of view. I never liked bits of anything, sweet or savory, embedded in my jell-o. What’s more, well past childhood I had serious doubts about eating cranberries or nuts and eggnog is something I have never cared for.
While tasting Aunt Hen’s Cranberry Eggnog Salad didn't appeal to my young palate, I admired it's composition all the same. The salad added a touch of drama to Aunt Hen's holiday table and the bright contrasting red and white layers were undeniably pretty. From time to time I would ask her to tell me about the salad, what was in it and why she made it but, as far as I can remember, I never actually tried it. Though my dad would say, “you just don’t know what’s good!" with a mischievous grin as he took another bite himself, Aunt Hen knew my preferences and never held it against me.
A Traditional Christmas Dinner
Aunt Hen was always the hostess of my family’s Christmas Dinner. On Christmas morning, after waking early and opening gifts at home, we would run to Aunt Hen’s house, just two doors away, past the old tin-roofed farm house where my father grew up, to see what Santa might have left for us there. Because he knew our family like he did, the jolly old fellow was kind enough to fill stockings for us there just as he did at our own house, while he tucked a few more gifts with our names on them under her tree.
Aunt Hen would already be up and in the kitchen no matter how early we arrived. She usually had a ham in the oven and was working on a variety of side dishes by the time we got there. After greetings we gathered around her Christmas tree to open gifts. That done the adults would reconvene in the kitchen to finish dinner preparations. Daddy sliced the ham while Aunt Hen and Aunt Betty put the finishing touches on the rest of the meal: scalloped potatoes, an oyster casserole, Southern Style Green Beans and, of course, the Cranberry Eggnog Salad.
While there may have been older family traditions that inspired Aunt Hen to serve a ham or an oyster casserole, the cranberry eggnog salad was her own personal contribution to our menu of holiday traditions. In a homespun church cookbook from 1980, a version of Aunt Hen’s Egg Nog Salad is given a page. The forward to the recipes collected declares, “This booklet is about remembrances of good times and good food…” Several other pages include sparsely detailed recipes accompanied by charming memories of holidays past and paragraphs about the traditions of families in our community. Aunt Hen’s page, on the other hand, details the recipe with clarity and precision while her words about the significance of the recipe state simply, “There is no special memory or tradition about this recipe. It is just one I always use at Christmas.” Reading that, I have to smile. In it’s own way, that page portrays a perfect likeness of my aunt.
The Family Cookbook
As I grew older I became more and more interested in our old family recipes. When I made my Family Heirloom Cookbook I included the recipe for Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad among other favorites like Brownie Pie, Peanut Butter Fudge, and Cherry Cheese Pie in Aunt Hen’s section of the book. I still hadn't tried the recipe myself. I added it on her authority, as well as that of Southern Living. After all, everyone knows you can trust a recipe published in Southern Living.
Finally, one Christmas season, the stars aligned. I found my jell-o mold, a thing I had never used but had set aside years earlier for this very purpose, and I remembered the recipe. Over the years my tastes had evolved and I even considered it within the realm of possibility that I could enjoy a salad of eggnog and cranberries. What's more, I had a number of the necessary ingredients on hand. I had a carton of eggnog in the refrigerator and some chunky cranberry sauce left over from a test recipe. I had gelatin and crushed pineapple in the pantry. At last it was time to try Aunt Hen’s special recipe.
It was a busy Saturday during the holiday season. Distracted by the events of the day I missed the target consistency of the cranberry layer. It was mostly set by the time I finished the eggnog mixture. Undeterred I poured the eggnog layer on top and let it set without much worry. When it was ready to be released from the mold all seemed well. I took a few photos then let it rest in the refrigerator until dinner time.
Tasting the Recipe
Aunt Hen's Cranberry Eggnog Salad made a nice presentation at the table. Served on a crystal platter with my mother’s silver tomato server (which had long been repurposed in our family traditions as a canned cranberry relish server.)
Grace was said and plates were filled. Still no one had touched the Cranberry Eggnog Salad. I urged them on but met with resistance. Finally I took it upon myself to dig in. I gently pressed the serving spoon against the salad to cut a slice. Just as I thought it was about to yield the entire wreath shaped upper cranberry layer slid away from the eggnog layer beneath it and onto the white linen tablecloth!
Surprised and slightly horrified I heard a collective gasp. A moment later everyone at the table burst into laughter. Vindicated in their resistance my children helped me gather the cranberry layer back onto the eggnog salad. They even tasted the ravaged remains briefly before getting back to the Southern Style Green Beans, Cornflake Casserole and Pumpkin Bread of their own cherished holiday traditions.
Taking a bite for myself I had to admit I still found the tastes of the salad unappealing. Maybe it was the type of cranberry relish I chose to use. Perhaps it was the problem with the setting consistency of the eggnog layer. Or maybe it was that I just don’t like eggnog or textured bits of anything in my jell-o. I know I didn't like the celery in the eggnog layer. Whatever the reason this is one family tradition I will probably leave in retirement, at least until I can think of a good way to make it more palatable to current family tastes. Still I’m glad that I gave it a try. And who knows? Just because I didn't like it doesn't mean that you won't. After all, I don't even like mayonnaise!
2 (3-oz) packages raspberry flavored gelatin
3 cups boiling water
1 package (10-14-oz)cranberry-orange relish (frozen, jar or homemade)
1 (20-oz) can unsweetened crushed pineapple, undrained
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
3 Tablespoons lime juice
1 1/2 cups commercial dairy eggnog
3/4 cup diced celery (optional)
Lettuce leaves (optional)
In a mixing bowl, pour boiling water over gelatin; stir until dissolved. Add cranberry-orange relish, stirring until thawed (if frozen) and well combined. Pour mixture into a lightly oiled (or spray with cooking spray) 8-12 cup mold. Chill until partially set.
Drain pineapple, reserving the liquid. Set pineapple aside. Soften unflavored gelatin in pineapple juice, and let stand 5 minutes. Cook gelatin mixture over low heat until the gelatin dissolves; add lime juice and eggnog.
Chill until partially set (until the eggnog mixture is roughly the consistency of unbeaten egg white.) Fold in pineapple and celery (if desired). Pour over cranberry layer. Chill until thoroughly set. Unmold onto lettuce leaves (if desired). Yield: 14 servings.