Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
If there is one Thanksgiving dish that is omnipresent (yet terribly underrated), it has to be cranberry sauce. In comparison with the turkey, the stuffing, and the pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce is perceived to play merely a supporting role. Noticed only when it’s absent, it’s the side that everyone feels obligated to make, but no one feels inclined to eat.
Which is why I was so delighted to finally see cranberry sauce get its due in the form of this vintage silverplate serving set.
Dating to perhaps the late 1940s, you can find cranberry sets all over Etsy, many of them never opened. A cranberry set is clearly one of those faddish kitchen items that made a brief appearance as a wedding gift, and then was quietly tucked away on the top shelf of the linen closet, never to be spoken of again. But what makes this cranberry set so truly wonderful is that this super fancy silverplate set is specifically designed to be used with canned cranberry sauce.
One look at the picture in the cover of its box will tell you that a canned cranberry cylinder will fit perfectly in the serving tray, and the swirl-patterned serving utensil will effortlessly slice off jiggling disks to serve to your dinner guests. So elegant! I tried it myself: the tube of jellied juice released itself from its can with a satisfying SLHHHRP, and sat on the silver tray, gleaming.
To me, the strangest part is not that someone thought people needed a serving set for canned cranberry sauce, but that canned cranberry sauce exists at all; cranberry sauce is painfully easy to make. However, convenience food in the mid-20th century was often viewed as modern and progressive. According to Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods that Changed the Way We Eat, a modern housewife of the 1950s would just as soon bust out a washboard to do her laundry, as make cranberry sauce from scratch. Today, although we’ve realized the value of homemade food, we still have an inexplicable nostalgia for canned cranberry sauce. Thanksgiving is simply not Thanksgiving without it.
I say let’s ditch it and make some old-school cranberry sauce. It’s changed very little over the time; in 1796, the first cookbook published America (aptly named American Cookery) gave a recipe for roast turkey that ended: “…Serve up with boiled onions, cramberry-sauce (sic), mangoes, pickles, or celery.” Another early cookbook, Eliza Leslie’s Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (1840), gives the same basic recipe for cranberry sauce we use today:
“Wash a quart of ripe cranberries, and put them into a pan with about a wine-glass of water. Stew them slowly, and stir them frequently, particularly after they begin to burst. They require a great deal of stewing, and should be like a marmalade when done. Just before you take them from the fire, stir in a pound of brown sugar. When they are thoroughly done, put them in a deep dish, and set them away to get cold.”
When you stew the cranberries slowly, they burst like popcorn, a chorus of “plops!” in the pan. You can strain out the peels and seeds and the juice will gel on its own, as a result of its naturally present pectin. But I like my cranberry sauce full of stuff and chunks. It’s great on top of your turkey, but works even better on top of venison, a staple of the multi-meat Thanksgiving tables popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. (A bacon-wrapped roast venison haunch is an awesome, and unexpected, addition to a modern Thanksgiving dinner.)
And lest we forget, the acid in cranberry sauce also serves an important purpose: to slice through all the rich, earthy, umami flavors of the meal. How can you fully experience the gravy, the stuffing, and the mashed potatoes, without cleansing your palate in between with refreshing cranberry sauce? It is the accomplice that makes all the other foods taste better.
So make your cranberry sauce from scratch this year: you won’t regret it. And this holiday, I know my cranberry sauce will not be ignored. It will be nothing less than the belle of the ball, served in my silver cranberry set.
Classic Cranberry Sauce
Adapted from Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches by Eliza Leslie, 1840.
1 bag fresh cranberries
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup brown sugar
Add cranberries and water to a large saucepan and stew over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and burning, particularly as the cranberries begin to pop. Stew until all the cranberries have burst, and the sauce is thick and dark red, about 10-15 minutes. Stir in sugar until completely dissolved, then remove from heat. Place in a dish and allow to cool.