Why you should care
Because some traditions are worth holding onto.
The writer works in communications at a law firm in Boston.
Every Thanksgiving, the ritual begins the same way — with a can opener and a small bowl. A knife, to ensure a smooth exit from the can. A gentle shake, and a satisfying plop. If I’m lucky, I’m left with a perfectly can-shaped hunk of Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce. My father picks up his knife and hovers it over the bowl. He looks at me, a gleam in his eye, and pauses for dramatic effect. “DAD!” I howl. “The first cut is MINE!”
As the rest of the family hoots, my father wordlessly pushes the bowl toward me. Smug in my victory, I make the incision. Always at the first groove in the sauce, taking the thick end. Lifting it out of the bowl between the knife and my finger, I pilot it safely to my plate, where it lands as a round, smooth disc. Only then does my father, laughing, take his slice.
And so it goes, every year. It has to be Ocean Spray, and it has to be jellied — none of that whole-berry crap. One year my aunt made the mistake of offering homemade sauce with cranberries and oranges. Oranges! The car ride home was spent berating my mother for making us suffer through such an indignity. From then on, my father and I brought our own can when attending others’ Thanksgiving dinners. Sure, it was a bit awkward. But we enjoyed our cranberry theater, and anyone who didn’t appreciate it — or the sauce — was a fool.
The first time I sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner without my father, the solitude of this obsession became even more apparent.
At some point while I was in high school, we decided that once a year wasn’t often enough to enjoy such a delicacy. My father arrived home from BJ’s Wholesale Club with six-packs of the stuff and the excuse that they were cheaper when bought in bulk, any month outside November. With chicken, with fish, with spaghetti — it went with everything. Eventually my mother and my sister began to disagree. It was never said aloud, but we both knew we had overdone it.
After I left for college, opportunities to complete our ritual grew few and far between. Though, as the holidays approached, I found myself making the argument to anyone in the dining hall who would listen: The only kind of cranberry sauce worth eating was the jellied kind. I was shocked to find so many who disagreed.
The first time I sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner without my father, the solitude of this obsession became even more apparent. My college boyfriend had brought me to his house to eat with his family, and I politely refused their homemade cranberry concoction. “Julie only likes the jellied stuff that comes in a can,” my boyfriend informed them. “Ew,” his sister shuddered. I had no backup, no dinner theater companion. I was all alone, on an island made of jelly.
This year has been a rough one for my dad and me. We’re trying to navigate our relationship as adults, and things have not gone smoothly. But if there’s one thing I know will be smooth, it’s that first perfect cut of cranberry sauce that will be taken at our Thanksgiving dinner. The slice will land on my plate with a satisfying plop — and then my dad will get to take his.