Bittersweet Memories and Cranberry Sauce

I always thought of myself as a mature kid. Markers of my full grown abilities were imagination, a faculty for prolonged unsupervised play, and a talent for cooking.  If I could cook–it seemed–I was old enough to take care of myself.

I learned the basics young. In nursery school my teachers showed me how to mix chopped cranberries, orange zest, and sugar in a bowl to make a simple cranberry sauce. By second grade I could put together a bowl of cereal without help, spread butter on toast, and decorate apples with cloves for Christmas ornaments. In third grade, I mastered cinnamon sugar toast and began learning how the numbers on the toaster could turn frozen food into something warm and satisfying. By the time I reached the fourth grade, I could make snacks for my brother and sister when we got home from school and oversee my siblings in their raucous play.

Being able to cook made me employable. I was a babysitter by age 10.

Maybe its because I was the first born. Perhaps, it was because I was self reliant. It may be the fact that I was an independent child capable of feeding herself and her siblings. I could re-heat chicken nuggets and fish sticks without anyone standing over me. I made pizzas out of pita bread, Ragu tomato sauces, and chunks of the random cheeses my mother bought at the grocery store. I was creative with my cooking. I found recipes in cookbooks and began dreaming of the meals I would cook.

Dreams become reality

The summer after I turned ten, my mother packed an extra big suitcase for a trip across the country. I held my breath as Mom filled the olive green suitcase with big sweaters, cotton pants, and prayer beads. She stuffed a canvas bag with my sister’s baby clothes and toys.

“Are we going on a trip?” I asked.

My mom put her hand on my shoulder. “No, honey. I’m going to Oregon to help take care of Aunt Mary,” she said. “She’s sick and I need to go help heal her.” She stuffed a dirty bottle into her meditation bag. “I’m taking your brother and sister with me.”

Tears the size of ripe berries ran down my face.  “But, what about me?” I said.

“You’re the oldest,” my mother said. “You’re old enough to take care of yourself.”

The trip lasted much longer than any of us expected. Months went by before my father began asking for some kind of resolution. Divorce or the return of the children, was his stance. By early fall, my mother put my brother and sister on a plane home back to Massachusetts. She would be returning a few weeks later, she reassured us.

My plan to be the well-regarded independent child had backfired. My self-reliance made it easy to leave me alone.

It was a cold fall night when my mother came back. She felt like a stranger. I was frightened by my anger, disappointment, and need for her love.  Mary had died.  I got my mother back.

I dressed in my best outfit. I showed her a photo album I lined with stickers that I had purchased with my allowance money. I showed her silver and gold unicorn stickers, shiny brown teddy bears, and sparkling rainbows. I put on an audio cassette I had recorded myself singing a song I had written. I described the meals I cooked while she was away. I bragged about the make-your-own-pizza restaurant I wanted to open for kids like me.

My mother hugged me. “I’m sorry I was gone for so long,” she said.

Cranberry Chutney

Ever since that nursery school cranberry sauce, I’ve had a big love for the tart and sweet condiment. I’ve experimented with tons of different recipes. I found this original recipe in the book The Thanksgiving Table by Diane Morgan a while back and have been changing it up over the years.

Cranberry Chutney
Adapted from The Thanksgiving Table, by Diane Morgan. Makes about 2 quarts.

4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
2 1/4 cups organic sugar
2 Saigon Cinnamon sticks if you can find them. Or use regular cinnamon sticks.
1 teaspoon of salt
2 Granny Smith or Arkansas Black apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 firm Bosc or Anjou pears,  peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup diced crystalized ginger
1/2 cup whole hazelnuts or almonds, roasted and chopped

Mix the cranberries, sugar, 1 1/4 cup of water, salt, Saigon Cinnamon, and spices in a deep saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, making sure to stir frequently to dissolve the sugar. Cook for approximately 10-15 minutes, or until the cranberries begin to pop open.  Adjust the heat so the mixture can begin to simmer. Stir in the apples, pears, onion, currants and cranberries. Cook and stir frequently until the mixture becomes thick (about 15 minutes). Remove from the heat. Stir in the nuts.

Let the mixture cool to room temperature. Discard the whole allspice pod and cinnamon sticks (if you can find them!). Refrigerate in a tightly sealed container for up to 3 months.

Perfect for turkey or as a condiment on sandwiches. Or, for a savory twist on dessert, put on top of ice cream or yogurt.

15 comments

  1. Kelly

    I admire your writing. Mainly your ability to paint such a vivid picture and such emotion in so few words. Thank you for sharing with us. I’m thankful that I met you this year! Happy Thanksgiving! :)

  2. Luky Luttmann

    You were a very strong girl, I am so proud of you and the life you made for yourself. You were an Incredible young girl then, and now, you are an incredible woman more strong and beautiful ever.

    Love,
    Luky

  3. marla

    Brooke, that is so scary for a young child ~ or adult. One of everyones biggest fears is to be abandoned, left behind, forgotten or *gasp* not loved. Thank you for your honesty and for being such a wonderful you!!
    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving fill with lots of this chutney & LOVE :)

  4. susan

    So raw and authentic, Brooke. Thank you. How you recall your emotions, at that age, is a gift – and your gift is in how you tell your stories. I loved reading this…I felt your emotion, and your cranberry sauce should be passed down for generations to come! x

  5. Lucy Lean

    thanks for sharing this heartbreaking memoir – and the recipe – as the oldest I too know how much we tried to suck it up and make everything good even when life really sucked and by being big we somehow made it worse and not better for ourselves… that said I know we are stronger and more independent for it in all ways. xxx

  6. Christian Rene Friborg

    This is a moving entry. I am a first born as well, and I’ve experienced some of the things that you have written about… being left out because I’m “old enough.”

    Thanks for the recipe!

  7. Patrick

    Love the glimpse into your past…makes you more human rather than a blogger. I’m a purist when it comes to cranberry sauce and will have to try this redition next time it is appropriate. BTW – I’ve only just mastered putting together a bowl of cereal so you’re way ahead of me!

  8. Ruthy

    Brooke what a beautiful and moving post! I too was the oldest and had often had to be a “big girl” whether I was ready for it or not. I love how it relates later to your love of food and resilience- and this chutney sounds perfect for this time of year.

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