Russ Parsons: Mom’s mysterious cranberry sauce is still one of my most popular holiday recipes

The precise origin remains unclear - despite the best efforts of Californian amateur detectives - but there’s no doubt this simple sauce is loved by young and old

In a long career misspent writing about food, I have created hundreds if not thousands of recipes. It’s something I have always taken great joy in. For me, it is a matter of pride knowing my readers have trusted me enough to try one of my dishes. That goes double at this time of year, when, with all the grand family dinners, the stakes are so much higher.

So it is a sweet irony that one of the holiday recipes I get the most requests for came from my mom. You may be expecting this to turn into yet another of those long paeans to the glories of a mother’s cooking. But this is not one of those stories.

My mother was a remarkable woman, but creative cookery was not high among her concerns. Little wonder. She was busy raising four kids in a military family, which meant living on a tight budget and moving almost every year. Cooking for her was not a recreational past-time, but a desperate matter of keeping those hungry mouths filled. Did I mention that three of those children were boys? The mind reels.

But as with so many cooks in similar situations, there were a few dishes that she did extremely well — the culinary equivalent of party pieces. One of her best was the cranberry sauce that she made every Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) and a month later at Christmas.


If you’re not an American, it might be hard to imagine the hold cranberry sauce has on the national appetite at this time of year. In one form or another, it shows up on almost every holiday table.

It could be a sweet sauce, a spicy chutney or even a raw relish (delicious with lime zest and a bit of jalapeño). Even the lowest common denominator — commercial canned jelly — is so iconic that some over-achieving recipe developers have figured out how to replicate it right down to the can’s ridges.

There is no shortage of recipes for cranberries, which makes it even more remarkable that my mom’s has achieved such notoriety. It is no exaggeration to say that in the 30 years since I first published it, it has appeared on thousands of holiday menus. Very Important Food People have told me it’s the one dish that always has to be on their family’s Thanksgiving table.

I’m not surprised. It is practically perfect — just the right balance of tart and sweet with lovely warm spices. The syrup is so good I sometimes surreptitiously steal a spoonful to eat by itself while I’m dishing up.

The recipe itself could hardly be simpler. Make a spiced heavy syrup — twice as much sugar as water by volume, flavoured with allspice, cloves, cinnamon and either orange zest or tangerine peel. Boil this until the sugar dissolves, then add the cranberries. Cook just until they begin to pop, then set aside to cool. Don’t overcook the cranberries — part of the appeal is the way they snap when you take a bite.

If you need the reassurance of measurements (and well you might the first time around), for two (340g) packages of fresh cranberries I use three cups of sugar, 1 1/2 cups of water, a half-dozen whole allspice berries, an equal number of whole cloves, two sticks of cinnamon broken in half, and the grated zest of an orange or the peel of a tangerine.

If you’re a picky sort, you can wrap the spices in a cheesecloth sachet so you can remove them before serving. In my family, biting into the occasional whole clove is part of the tradition, so we leave the spices scattered through the sauce. Besides, I think they look good that way.

Beyond knowing that the recipe was handed down from my mother, I have no idea where it originated, though since she was hardly an experimental cook, it must have come from somewhere else.

I once wrote about this mystery, turning loose the Los Angeles Times readership on a detective hunt. I got dozens of suggestions, but none of them matched up exactly. The closest was from an obscure homemakers’ cookbook from the 1950s, but it was different in some particulars.

Cranberries served this way seem to be a distinctly North American taste. Judging from my adventures cooking Thanksgiving dinner in Ireland the past three years, they don’t start showing up here until right after the holiday — in early December, just in time for the Christmas ham (a brilliant combination, I think).

Trying to keep our family’s Thanksgiving traditions alive for the grandbabies has resulted in some frantic searches over the years. One time a store clerk found a lone bag buried in the freezer section under a pile of other fruit (cranberries are one of those foods that are every bit as good frozen as fresh). Another year I had just about given up when a friend messaged me with a last-minute spotting at a distant grocery and off I went.

The little ones do love these cranberries. And it warms my heart to know that, even though my mother has been gone for almost 30 years now, a whole new generation is enjoying her recipe, wherever it came from. No cook — professional or not — could have a sweeter legacy than that.