My food network
Some friends and I ate at Ella Dining Room and Bar on K Street the other day. Slightly dizzy with hunger, we pored over the choices with care. There were brandades of this and confits of that, fanciful hand-cut conceptions and salads with the quotations around the word “salad” as if to imply that these items were either superior to or more ironic than normal vegetable arrangements—perhaps even both.
Despite the fancy offerings, however, my friend was drawn to Ella’s take on cream of mushroom soup.
“I love cream of mushroom soup!” she said. But not just any cream of mushroom soup, she stressed. No, she craved Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup—the milky salt bomb of her childhood days.
She ordered the soup, but although the silky smooth liquid was delicious, (no condensed lumps here!) it was, she reported with a touch of regret, “no Campbell’s.”
Later, as I considered dessert, I decided that Ella’s brandy-and-vanilla-infused pineapple upside-down cake would likely let me down, unable to match the chemically sweet boxed Duncan Hines perfection of my youth. And then, suddenly, I realized why my family no longer lets me cook at the holidays.
Every Christmas, we gather at my aunt’s house for a lavish meal served on gleaming china. We use shining silver utensils and drink from crystal glasses. There are pretty white linens on the table, real flower centerpieces, shimmering candles and, always, cranberries out of a can.
Most of the adult siblings and cousins are responsible for bringing a dish; for the last five years, my “assignment” has been the vegetable—usually a simple green bean or broccoli recipe taken straight from the same red Betty Crocker cookbook I’ve been using since I moved into my first apartment at 18.
And that’s the way it will be, I imagine, until the day I die—or host my own family holiday dinner.
In the past I tried to get creative with dishes, but with each attempt, my family swiftly and, without apology, shut me down.
There was, for example, the year they asked me to make the fruit salad. I scoured Gourmet and Bon Appétit for ideas, finally settling on an elaborate array of tropical fruit dressed in a honey-rum syrup.
“Mmm,” my aunt said politely. “So good.”
“Delicious,” my mother said, suspiciously poking her fork through the fruit as if searching for something familiar—a grape perhaps, maybe an apple wedge.
The next year I was taken off of fruit salad and given cranberries.
Who can mess up cranberries?
Me, that’s who.
Again, I combed through recipes, finally choosing one with fresh cranberries simmered in an orange and cinnamon stick-infused glaze.
“Lovely,” my aunt said. “Where did you get the recipe?”
“Delicious,” my mother said, stabbing at the berries, suspicious of their cranberry shape.
The next year I was moved to vegetables with explicit instructions (something green, no olive oil, light on the seasonings), and my family got its jellied, can-shaped Ocean Spray back.
I was hurt at first, but now even I have to admit there’s something comforting about the way the jewel-red mold swooshes out of the can, perfectly formed and ready to slice. These berries are unassuming but utilitarian with no exotic spices to temper the can-infused metallic tang they leave on my tongue, and yet every year, when I bite into one of those cranberry rings, they taste just like home.