One hallmark of the Age of Foodism is to take unassuming, often relentlessly processed foods and transform them, She’s All That–style, into purer, more elevated versions of their former selves. It’s a drama that plays out particularly well (as most dramas do) on Thanksgiving, when a culturally mandated appreciation for food in its most natural form runs counter to the urge to stick marshmallows in sweet potatoes or dump a can of fried onions onto the green bean casserole. But nowhere is the disconnect between tradition and gastronomic correctness more apparent than in a dish—er, can—of cranberry sauce.
Recent years have been kind to cranberry sauce, giving us recipe after recipe after recipe for concoctions tricked out not only with real, whole cranberries but also with nice things like pumpkin seeds, fennel, and chipotles. Pretty much everyone hails this development, which has turned cranberry sauce into the Thanksgiving table’s Most Likely to Succeed.
I’m happy that the sour little fruit is getting its due, but I have a confession to make: I love the crappy Ocean Spray stuff that slides out of its can with that revolting sucking sound, settles moistly on a plate, and all but begs to be sliced along its convenient indentations.
I love how perfectly it matches the image on its label: gelatinous ruby slices more closely resembling beets, Jell-O, or surgical specimens than anything even distantly related to fruit. I love how it glides down the throat unencumbered, the ideal chaser for more textured, less flagrantly man-made foods. I love how divisive it is, how it invites acolytes to roll in the gutter while everyone else watches with dubiousness or disgust. And I love how it can’t be anything more than it is, despite the best efforts of magazine test kitchens and Sandra Lee. It’s just a cylinder of smooth, featureless goo, a blank canvas for projections of fear and loathing or undying affection.
And against my better instincts (and everything the sustainable food movement has drilled into me), I love the taste, that unforgiving sweetness that grudgingly acknowledges the tartness of its namesake and provides such satisfyingly trashy contrast to the more pedigreed dishes crowding the table. Along with marshmallow-impregnated sweet potatoes, canned cranberry sauce is the perfect bridge between dinner and dessert. A questionable idea? Yes. An aberration of good taste? Certainly. A reason to be thankful? You bet.