As a child you witness moments between your parents that you don’t fully understand because the subtleties of the adult relationship are naturally beyond your youthful comprehension at the time. Surprisingly though, in my own innocence, during moments of nuanced flirtation between Mother and Daddy, I saw instances of very personal, private and special moments between them. They could be dancing, or laughing or just talking, but the one I remember the most was the banter back and forth between them when the topic of “the biscuit in a jar” came up.
This usually occurred while we were gathered around our small kitchen table and the skill and talent of Mother’s cooking came into question. It might have been a story about the accidental burning of toast (which was not uncommon in our house), the failure of a meringue, or the toughness of the T-bone steak broiled in the oven. Whatever the prompt, the bantering took on a familiar essence. Sometimes I viewed it as “being too hard on Mother” and at other times, I saw it as flirtatious teasing. “That biscuit is as hard today as it was the day she baked it,” began the familiar quote from our father.
Once we heard that statement, one of us would jump up from our chair and retrieve the old Mason jar from the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet, where that biscuit had resided for as long as I could remember. Dusty, crumbly and hard as a rock, the retriever would shake the jar as a testament to Daddy’s declaration, while the biscuit knocked back and forth against the glass in a contrecoup fashion, further releasing more dusty ingredients of yesteryear. We would laugh, the jar would be returned to the top shelf and our meal would continue. Mother took this teasing in great stride and other than exhibiting one of her famous smirks, she laughed along with all of us.
Regardless of the state of that first biscuit at conception and years later, Mother’s overall skill and success in the kitchen far outweighed that one failure. She was never much for recipes, unless they were written on a scrap piece of paper tucked in a drawer, or from the page of a magazine, torn out and tucked in perhaps a different drawer. I also don’t recall the existence of a cookbook in her kitchen. Overall her culinary attempts were more extemporaneous and experimental, rather than precise and calculated.
Nevertheless, her methods were effective, as through watchful eyes and repeated attempts, I learned how to make a cheese sauce, a cream pie, deviled eggs and many other tried and true dishes. No written recipe required.
Unfortunately, her famous recipe for cranberry relish escaped us all. Perhaps it was because she made it up, or it was so simple that she didn’t need to write down the ingredients or directions. Or its makeup changed from year to year. We will never know. You see, it was Thanksgiving when she left us, and her cranberry relish went with her.
It was not unexpected. We just did not expect it to happen on Thanksgiving. That should not be the day you say goodbye to your mother. It is a day of thanks when you gather around family and friends, and you give thanks for all that you have, and you eat turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and cranberries, and sometimes bring out that old biscuit in a jar.
For the four Strange kids, our Thanksgiving feast evolved from the canned cranberry sauce of old to a deliciously crunchy relish made fresh from cranberries. Nuts, oranges, sugar and other ingredients blended together to serve as an all-important accoutrement to the holiday meal. It became her signature Thanksgiving dish and it was unequivocally the best cranberry relish ever. But, on that Thanksgiving day in 1990, there was no cranberry relish and we suddenly realized the importance of cranberries in our lives.
Each year, since that day we have been searching for second best. Sissy and I discuss our holiday menus for the day for our respective families in our respective cities, and we share the latest and greatest-so we hope-cranberry relish recipes we have found in this season’s Bon Appetit or on the Food Network-often asking the question “Did Mother put xxxx in her cranberry relish?”
At times, we go outside the bounds of a traditional relish and follow recipes with untraditional ingredients such as jalapenos or radishes-BTW don’t try radishes-they just don’t work. Or for me, I just try to make up my own recipe throwing in “a little bit of this and little bit of that” using Mother’s famous method of creative cooking. Sometimes the results are edible, and other times not. It’s definitely a crap shoot.
What I have learned in my quest, is that Mother definitely used cranberries, and there were nuts in that relish, and perhaps some kind of Jell-O. Which flavor? Only Mother knows. Beyond those ingredients, it is pure guesswork.
As you prepare for Thanksgiving this year, remember to tell your family and friends that you love them. Be thankful for all that you have, and be kind and generous to those with whom we share this earth and this life.
And, if you have any great recipes for cranberry relish, please send them my way. I am still on that quest and searching for the second best cranberry relish ever made. Maybe this year I will get it right!
In loving memory of Jean Quirey Strange
April 29, 1925-November 22, 1990