My mom has a recipe on Epicurious. At first I found that amusing. Epicurious, after all, is the holy grail of recipe websites, the collected works of some of the best food writers in the country. And, to put it most kindly, my mom was not a gifted cook. At least not by the definition we most usually apply today.
Oh, it’s a good recipe. Maybe a great recipe. We printed it in the Los Angeles Times for the first time in 1992 and most recently in 2000, and I still get calls and emails every Thanksgiving asking for Mom Parsons’ Cranberries.
It has just the right balance of sweet and tart, with the spice of cloves, cinnamon and allspice coming up from the background. I can — and sometimes do — drink the syrup straight. The texture is like a loose jelly, but the cranberries are cooked briefly, so they still have pop. It’s so good that I know my mom couldn’t have thought it up herself.
When I say something like that, people sometimes gasp. It sounds cruel, particularly these days when culinary ability is regarded as being next to godliness.
But even if my mom had had the inclination to be a good creative cook, she probably wouldn’t have had either the time or the resources. She was too busy raising four kids on my dad’s Air Force salary — for most of his career a modest paycheck that still required us to pack up and move almost every year.
To my mom, cooking was not about the joy of creation, it was a part of housework — something that had to be done to feed six people three times a day, along with the washing and the ironing, the dusting and the vacuuming and the helping with the homework.
Later, when we kids were more grown, she dabbled in baking bread and cookies. But even then she harbored a deep distrust of written recipes, as if they were witch doctors’ incantations that might or might not work depending on the phase of the moon or the mood of the ingredients.
The cranberry sauce is pretty easy to make: You boil spiced simple syrup and then add the berries and cook them just until they start to pop. Chill for a couple of days and you’re good to go. (Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold says he substitutes orange juice for half of the liquid, which I think is a very good idea.)
So where does this recipe come from? After a couple of weeks of concerted searching, I still don’t know. I can’t ask her; she’s been gone for almost 20 years. The only record I have is a recipe card in her handwriting titled simply “Spiced Cranberries.” It will go to my daughter.
My sister, the family historian, has a similar recipe card, but hers reads “Grandma Smith’s Spiced Cranberries,” which indicates that it came from my mom’s family in Wapakoneta, Ohio. But it also has the note “Good with turkey and ham,” and while my family always ate turkey, we almost never ate ham, so that could be an indication that it was copied from a cookbook or magazine. That’s my dad’s best guess as well.
But where? I’ve looked through my old editions of “Joy of Cooking” — my mom’s family’s kitchen bible — and though there is a spiced cranberry recipe somewhat similar in structure, the technique and balance of ingredients is different.
My sister pointed to the 1943 edition of “The American Woman’s Cookbook,” which she remembers my mom using. There’s a spiced cranberry recipe in there, but again, though the ingredients are similar, they’re put together in a different way.
I used my best Google-fu, but even after searching through 10 pages of results, still couldn’t find anything that matched. I took it to the hive mind on Facebook with no luck. I even queried Ocean Spray, the cranberry growers’ cooperative, but they couldn’t help either.
At this point, I guess it’s going to have to remain a Thanksgiving mystery.
And in a way, I think that’s kind of fitting — let’s let it stand as a tribute to all those anonymous souls who labor in the kitchen, cooking not for the fun of it but simply because the families they love need to eat.
They can’t all wind up on Epicurious, but they still deserve our thanks.