Cranberry Jelly and Giving Thanks

photo cranberries out of a bagIf you are in a bind and going to a holiday gathering and someone nonchalantly says, “Just bring a little something,” then for goodness sake call the cranberry sauce. Say loud and clear, “I will bring the homemade cranberry sauce.” Make sure the person writes it down somewhere.

Call the cranberry sauce if you don’t love cooking, or if you are swamped, or if you are just not feeling the cooking vibe. Because, in case you weren’t aware, making cranberry sauce is the easiest of all of the Thanksgiving tasks. It might even be easier to make homemade than it is to strategically remove the cranberry jelly from the can so it still has the perfect can ridges on it. Although, I really hope some of you still do that, too. Like a solitary hay bale on the plains, I do so love the geometric incongruity of a well plated can of cranberry jelly on a table of homemade fare. That little cylinder of wiggling goodness always gives me a giggle. And by that I truly mean that I approve.

But, given 15 minutes, berries, sugar and water, you can make a really delicious and fresh cranberry sauce. You can get as fancy as you like. You can throw in some green chiles at the end, as I did. I thought it might be nice with my smoked turkey. Or you can add some orange zest and a squeeze of orange juice, or some chopped pecans. You can do all of these things or none of these things. With one cup of sugar, you still end up with a nice, somewhat tart sauce. Have a taste before it cools completely though, as you can increase the sugar if you like.

photo how to cook cranberries

Cranberry Jelly and Giving Thanks
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 2 cups
Simple. Simple. Simple. Always offer to bring the cranberry jelly. If you are the person who never knows what to contribute to Thanksgiving, this recipe is for you.
  • 3 cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • Optional add-ins: 1 teaspoon chopped jalapeno or 1 tablespoon chopped New Mexico green chiles or 2 tablespoons chopped pecans or 1 teaspoon orange zest and a squeeze of orange juice
  1. Rinse the berries and drain. In a medium saucepan, combine the water and sugars and bring to a simmer, stirring to ensure that the sugar dissolves and doesn’t stick.
  2. When the water and sugar are simmering, add the cranberries. Return to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. The cranberries will begin to burst and pop. Mash some of the berries with the back of a spoon. Allow to cool in the pan. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use. If using peppers, add them with 5 minutes left in the cooking time.

photo bowl of cranberry jellyThoughts on Thanksgiving

Somewhere along the path, I have lost my way on Thanksgiving. Somewhere it ceased to be about people and became about food and effort. When I was a child, I had almost all of my Thanksgivings at my grandparents’ house. Katie and Virgil, with seven kids, became the center of gravity on Thanksgiving Day. When they moved to Lake Wichita next door to my parents’ house, Thanksgiving meant hauling trays of brownies next door and waiting for the fun to start. This was over 25 years ago, of course. Virgil and Katie would get up early and stuff and sew up a giant bird and get it into the oven. I still have the curved upholstery needle that they used for 45 years to sew up the turkeys. It hangs from a thin silver chain that I keep tucked away in my kitchen. After my grandfather died, it seemed Aunt Betty would always bring a giant Oster roaster full of perfectly sliced turkey ready to plug in and keep warm in the kitchen. But everything was laid out buffet style in the kitchen, gravy in a pan on the stove, extra dressing in the oven, crock-pots plugged into every available outlet.

The washer and dryer, which were practically in the living room, became a makeshift dessert buffet. I always wanted to fill up on my mother’s brownies with confectioners’ sugar sprinkled on top. Sometimes, if I begged, she would make a tray without pecans for the kids. Someone would always bring pecan and pumpkin pies. Someone would bring tins of cookies. Katie would always make her ubiquitous green jell-o salad. There would be casserole dishes of every shape and size festooning every square inch of counter space. Write your name with a black marker on masking tape and stick it on the bottom if you want to make sure everything gets back to where it needs to be, but it doesn’t really matter because it all comes out in the wash. Laughter, clanking dishes, paper plates, football games on the TV and in the yard, changing leaves, coffee percolating, someone playing chopsticks on the piano, waiting for each and every car of relatives to show up and cause masses of hellos and hugs to clog the entryway. Here come Jane and Stan. I haven’t seen Kathy in ages. Here come the Bowles boys! Somebody help Betty with that roaster. Rick and Shelley just got here from Dallas. So did Harry and Diana…where are Susan and Sarah? Take this cooler out to the workshop. Hand me that baby. Don! Joey! Joyce! God, one by one, two by two, we’d all pile into the house at 110 Land’s End.

There was not one formal dinner table. There were plates on laps. There was not a kids’ table to get rid of the noisemakers. There were not placemats or anyone bitching that you set the table wrong. There was no start and no finish. There was no formality or expectations. There was only food and joy and love.

I remember those years with such poignancy. It is happy sadness. Those were my very favorite years of Thanksgiving. All of my holidays have been enviable on a global worldview scale. But these were the best. On some level, my pre-occupation with food has ruined Thanksgiving, though. The yearly photo on the cover of Bon Appetit or Martha Stewart of a perfectly maple colored bird, and all of the dishes prepared just so, tricks us into thinking that the meal is a performance piece. Candles. Tablecloths. Blessings. Manners. Clinking wine glasses. Gravy boats. Dishes passing in perfect synchronicity. A man standing at the head of the table, carving knife in hand. Yuck! That isn’t what Thanksgiving is supposed to be, is it? We should all endeavor to not say, “I always…,” or worse yet, “I never…,” when thinking about this meal.

Writing is like psychotherapy. I have already told you I’m ordering my turkey. And, on top of that, I’m going to try to give a little less of a damn about everything else, too. And, that is a good thing. Last year we bagged the whole enterprise and enjoyed the Thanksgiving buffet at the Cliff’s restaurant at Possum Kingdom Lake. That was wonderful! No one was tired. No one had to do dishes. There were no holiday martyrs except the dear wait staff that took on another day of labor for all of us. This year, we are going to have a very low key Thanksgiving with just my sweet little family. We need that.  But right now, contemplating cranberry sauce, I’m telling you that I will mellow out a little, now and forever. I’m not going to have a big to-do, nor will there be 40 people wandering in and out like the days (enshrined in my memory) at the lake. But I am going to get over myself a little. I am going to throw a football again on Thanksgiving Day. Children will fly over my body with my feet holding them in the sky. There will be squeals because there will be tickling. And, maybe there will be a fire in the fireplace and some hot tea, and some football on the television, too.

There will be food. But, Thanksgiving will not be about the food. Nor will it be about the table. Nor will it be about my big effort or my culinary prowess.  There might even be paper plates, so that I will not find myself, halo aglow, griping over a sink of dishes. Nor will it be about hitting all of the bases of obligation, and ending up exhausted, with exhausted kids. Although I should say straight out…my family does not obligate me the way you hear some do. Sometimes I throw a little self doubt and guilt into the mix myself for extra flavoring, though. I will also acknowledge this year that one person’s version of Heaven is another’s version of Hell, and that some of my dearest memories might represent very difficult days in the lives of others. I will give myself a break. I hope you will give yourself a break. And, I hope we will both give our loved ones a break, as well.

I hope you have a chance to see your family this holiday. I hope you really see them, and by that I mean I hope you don’t work so hard that you don’t have the time to sit down and really see and hear them. I hope no one makes you feel bad because this year you decided to make bread stuffing instead of cornbread stuffing. I hope no one acts slighted because for the first time in 50 years you didn’t use great aunt June’s china gravy boat. I hope you do only as much as you truly enjoy doing. Because, then it isn’t work.

And you can tell any disgruntled or pouting relatives that I said, “Shape up or go home…families don’t act like that.”

And, finally, if you are the one pouting, perhaps you should spend the day in service of those less fortunate. Because in a very real sense, most of us are so lucky. We have so much for which to be thankful. But, I have a friend whose son is in Afghanistan this Thanksgiving. I have a friend who is celebrating her first Thanksgiving since the death of her husband. I have several of those friends, actually. Many of you will be having your first Thanksgiving as a couple, taking over the reins from parents who are either thrilled or feeling useless over having the roles changed. Some of you will have your first Thanksgiving following a divorce, or the death of a child. Some of you have a child spending the first holiday with the “other” family. Some have no family at all.

Holidays can be terribly painful.

But they can also be about found families. They can be about chosen families. And they can be about opening our own intact families.

Holidays can be about the concrete confidence that simply hearing your child’s voice from across the miles is something for which to give enormous thanks, because it means there will be a chance to be together another Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving, in particular, can be about nothing more than the name implies…giving thanks, expecting nothing, but giving profound thanks for our imperfect, nutty, busy, fractured, silly, wonderful lives.

I am thankful for so much this year. I am thankful for each of you. And I hope that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, big, small, at home, out, together, alone or otherwise.


  1. Joey says

    The smell of giblet gravy & mincemeat pie; Dallas Cowboys on TV; a Carlson Cousin wrestling match or two; ‘chopsticks’ clanking on the piano; cold Budweiser iced in coolers on back porch; football in the front yard…you just put the biggest smile on my face! I love you and I’m thankful for all of those precious Carlson Thanksgivings and memories.

  2. Kelly says

    Oh, Joey. You make me so happy.

    I should probably acknowledge that these holidays were great also because our mothers were doing the work of cooking and we were free to run wild. I don’t want to imply that there was no effort…just that it was very shared. I can really still feel, smell, and hear those days at the lake and on Hirschi Street. I’m so glad that we shared all of those memories together. I love you.

  3. Diane Gibbs says

    Loved this post…Your large family is indeed a blessing. Last year we had lost 3 members of our family…4 if you count a divorce…in just a few months…We were understandably dreading the holidays…so we changed everything. I ordered a dinner from Pappas. We held the event at the house my 2 sons who had lost their wives are now sharing…no memories or ’empty seats’ there. A gal-friend of my son’s from law-school and a friend from Japan, joined us.(He did NOT understand the cranberry jelly but is planning to come back to Texas for T-giving, in a couple of weeks!) It was a blast. My boys remember the fun we managed to have and the fact that I wasn’t stressed out. We’re doing it again this year! Besides, I could never duplicate my mom’s wonderful stuffing or her cranberry relish…she would grind the berries in an old thing that screwed onto the table.(and my dad was always mad about when we ate. Your wonderful memories stirred something in me, so I had to comment!

  4. Dee Ann Martin says

    Wow! This certainly did bring back fun memories of my family when we were growing up.You were right on target as you probably remember when you, your mom and Will ate with us! The last 30 years have been about food, formalities and the perfection of it all! Oh, you said it perfectly. This does not mean that we did not stand around the piano and sing together or let someone play the guitar and watch a little football as well as having great food. Not this year! We are giving all that up. We will join someone without family in a very small setting outside our home with Dee Ann and Noros free from the kitchen, fresh flowers, the silver, china and all that I feel must go with a Martin Thanksgiving. Now I am trying to keep from having any guilt feelings. Thank you for helping me in this process. Enjoy your Thanksgiving and make wonderful new memories for your children!

  5. Phyllis Carlisle says

    Thanks Kelly. Your memories remind me of my own childhood and a very large German family on my father’s side. Lots of food, no formal table and plenty of cousins to play with and family to enjoy.

  6. Kelly says

    Dee Ann, it is funny this caught your attention because I almost mentioned you by name in this post. The first post-D year that your family adopted mine and served us such a glorious meal was SO important to us. That was just one of those wounded and hard years, and you scooped us up and let us be a part of your family. I seem to recall a salt crusted beef tenderloin that was beyond wonderful, and a happy, festive, and yes PERFECT home, right when we needed one. I guess there is a time and a place for every sort of celebration. But, your karma is in good shape for the meal you served our fractured family that year.

  7. Kelly says

    Diane, thank you so much for posting this. 4 losses in one year almost seems too much to bear. I love that you all had the wisdom to just turn it on it on its head. I hope this year has been a little more kind. And, I hope that you have a very joyful Thanksgiving this year, whatever form it takes.

  8. N.Judd says


    I just happened on this post because you posted on somebody’s party with your cranberry picture. And I’m so glad I did. I just read your post and it touched me deeply. I relate to much of what you say. And your childhood memories bring back so many of mine to me. Your thoughts are profound, true and good. It makes one think. Glad to have found you. And Thanks for the beautiful essay. I’m looking forward to visiting you again. N.

  9. Jessica Timmons says

    My family’s Thanksgiving will be quite different this year without my sister. I told my family I’d do cranberries (along with with quite a few other things) and then realized I’d never done them before. Thanks for the post – I’m going to use Meyer lemons from my dad’s tree in place of the oranges. I’m definitely adding the peppers. :)


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