My mom, who is Canadian, did not grow up with Thanksgiving. It was an American custom she acquired at the same time she acquired my dad. She acquired him, officially, on June 13, 1954, which, I suspect, is roughly the vintage of her Thanksgiving cranberry mold recipe.

It calls for dark red Jell-O (note: a color, not a flavor); canned cranberries (although, my mother says, “fresh are better”), and chopped celery, apples and walnuts. My mother makes the cranberry mold in a copper-colored dish that has a hole in the center – picture a bundt pan. For Thanksgiving dinner, she sets a small glass Pyrex dish filled with Hellmann’s mayonnaise inside that cavity.

For a number of years, the cranberry mold caused Thanksgiving friction. At least for me. I had become obsessed with cooking in my teens and early adulthood. I held multicourse sit-down dinner parties for high school friends. I worked at splashy restaurants. I stayed up all night to make beet-tinted fresh pasta and spent long afternoons baking elegant, many-layered nut tortes with European buttercream. I faulted my parents for failing to subscribe to Gourmet magazine.

Naturally, neither Jell-O salads, nor molds, nor mayonnaise sat well with me. I had all kinds of extravagant ideas about cranberry sauce in those years. One Thanksgiving, I spent hours de-seeding kumquats to make cranberry-kumquat sauce. Another time, I made three sauces, one not satisfying my idea of a bountiful Thanksgiving table. Do we have to have that outdated, icky-sweet cranberry mold? I’d whine year after year.

But Susan, my oldest sister, demanded it, and for my mother, it wasn’t Thanksgiving without the cranberry mold.

My mother doesn’t remember it like this. Her memory isn’t so good these days. Today, as it happens, she turns 87, and when I asked for the recipe, she not only absolved me of poor Thanksgiving behavior; she didn’t recollect it.

“Was I obnoxious?” I asked her over the phone last week. “Yeah,” she said and then instantly retracted. “No. Maybe we made both? Didn’t we do that for a couple of years? The two kinds?”

Yes, we did. We do. After years of bickering – that’s the real Thanksgiving tradition in my family – we compromised, or rather I grew up. At Thanksgiving dinners of recent vintage, Mom’s cranberry mold has co-existed peaceably with a fresh cranberry relish that my sister Carolyn and I love.

We’d planned to make Mom’s version together when she visited Portland earlier this month so I could write about that, but despite several reminders, she forgot to bring the recipe.

Over the phone, she read it to me, and I asked if she toasted the walnuts.

“Never,” she said, as she thumbed distractedly through her recipe file to see if she could figure out the mold’s origins. A Jell-O promotion? A magazine? The version she makes is written out on a recipe card in her own hand; the original grew so old and stained, she recopied it.

When I made the cranberry mold last week, I found myself arguing with it, or perhaps with my mother. I toasted the walnuts. I added salt. I threw in chopped fennel with the celery and apples, along with lots of fresh, grated ginger and lime zest. Next time, I made a mental note, I’d skip the Jell-O – even the smell was cloying and fake – and use unflavored gelatin.

Sorry, Mom.



2 (3-ounce) packages of dark red Jell-O

4 cups hot water

1 (14-ounce) can cranberries or 2 cups homemade cranberry sauce

1 cup chopped apples

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped walnuts

Brush a large (8 to 10 cups) decorative mold lightly with oil or coat with cooking spray. Set aside.

Whisk together the Jell-O and the water in a large bowl until the Jell-O dissolves. Combine with the canned cranberries or sauce. Cool the mixture in the refrigerator until it is very softly gelled.

Stir in the apples, celery and walnuts. Refrigerate several hours or overnight to gel firmly.

When it’s time to serve, if the cranberry mold doesn’t release easily, dip the outside of the mold in a large bowl of hot water very briefly (otherwise the Jell-O will melt). Turn out onto a lettuce-covered platter and serve in slices with mayonnaise.