Grandma’s cranberry salad

One of the best parts of my childhood was growing up with a collection of truly kick-ass grandmothers. I say collection because in addition to my two grandmothers, all four of my great-grandmothers were still alive when I was a teen-ager (one lived until I was in my thirties).

My Great-grandma I. taught me how to make egg noodles from scratch, (which is the first step to making the World’s Best Chicken Noodle Casserole {which she also taught me how to make}), and that measuring cups are only guidelines. My Great-grandma S.J. taught me how to crochet, how to make biscuits from scratch, and how to listen in on the neighbors’ conversation on a party line (if you don’t know what a party line is, google it). Great-grandma B. taught me how to make ice tea with so much sugar, it was amazing the stuff would actually pour (and there is a secret, it’s not just about adding more and more sugar, although that’s an important part). I could go on, and on.

But during this time of year there are a couple things I regret never learning from my various grandmothers: I never learned Great-grandma S.J.’s heavy-cream-and-molasses sweet potatoes (I’ve found and tried some recipes, but so far, none come out right), and I never learned how to make Grandma P.’s frozen cranberry salad. I have recreated a close approximation, but it also isn’t quite right.

Every holiday when I get together with that side of the family, someone laments the absence of Grandma’s cranberry salad. I’m not the only one who has attempted to recreate it. Every version I’ve tried has been tasty, but it isn’t the same.

The funny thing is, that unlike most of the other dishes each of them was known for, this one wasn’t a really old recipe. Great-grandma S.J. once told me she’d learned how to make divinity from her own grandmother, for instance. It’s the reason she couldn’t write the recipe down, she’d have to show you. That had been the case with her homemade biscuits. When I make her biscuits I throw ingredients together and mix. If the consistency isn’t right, you add more of one of the ingredients, depending up how the consistency is wrong. It’s hard to describe. You have to experience it.

Grandma P.’s cranberry salad was something she started making when I was an adult. She’d seen it on a cooking show, she said, and just gave it a try. We know it involves canned cranberry sauce (the chunky kind), whipped cream, canned mandarin oranges, and some kind of jell-o. After that, none of us are sure. Or, more truthfully, we had contradictory memories. Some of us insist it had coconut, but others are certain it had marshmallows, for instance.

The thing that I don’t want to say to any of the family: I bet all of our contradictory memories are right. It fits right in with Grandma’s style of cooking. “Oh, I don’t have any shredded coconut? Hmmm, oh here’s some marshmallows, maybe they will be good…”

And probably the real reason it never tastes right, is because it’s missing the most important ingredient. The one we can never replace…

2 thoughts on “Grandma’s cranberry salad

    1. I did once write a long detailed version of how to do Great-Grandma’s Chicken Noodle (that’s what she called it, “Chicken Noodle” she never said
      “casserole”), and I had one friend–a friend who said he always struggled to follow regular recipes–report some time after I’d posted it that he’d followed it and it worked. So, yay!

      The problem with it is it encourages me to experiment a lot. Every now and then I get a really fabulous result, and realize that I’m not sure I can remember all the things I did along the way to make it.

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