The Canned Stuff

I didn't know cranberries came any other way

Canned Cranberry Sauce
Photo: John Cuneo

It just wasn't Thanksgiving till the shaking commenced.

My mother's turkey would already be out of the oven and resting on the stove-top, still steaming in a lake of butter and seasonings, the ancient, blackened roasting pan wedged in right next to a big pan of my Aunt Jo's cornbread dressing. The biscuits were done, along with the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pinto beans and ham, creamed onions, and all the rest. The pound cakes and pecan pies waited on the sideboard.

But there could be no feast, not even grace, until I saw my sainted mother shaking in the kitchen like she had grabbed a naked wire. The first time I witnessed it, as a little boy, I thought perhaps she might be possessed or going into convulsions.

"No," she said. "I'm just tryin' to get this cranberry sauce out of this can."

She would twist off the lid with her hand-cranked can opener—she did not trust the electric kind, which sounded faintly demonic, like a rock-and-roll record played backward—and aim the can at a clean plate. Then she went to town.

She shook straight up and down, mostly, but sometimes she had to go a little sideways, until finally it slid out in one neat, cylindrical shape and plopped down on the plate.

Thank you, Lord, we all thought, and the prayer had not even begun yet.

She sliced it into neat circles, each a half inch thick.

"John," she said to my uncle, "will you say the blessin'?"

I didn't know cranberries or jellied cranberries or whatever you call them came any other way. I guess I was in junior high school before I ever even knew it started with an actual fruit. Most of you will probably roll your eyes at this, despite knowing good and well that your mama was shaking all over your kitchen too.

When I was of dating age, I sat down to more formal Thanksgiving dinners and saw my first real cranberry, in what I think they called a "chutney." I believe this was also the first time I ever witnessed a turkey with those little booties at the end of its drumsticks. And I thought this was kind of mean, to tart up the poor thing after it was already dead and gone.

But anyway, I digress. I can't say I didn't like the rich folks' version of cranberry sauce, but it wasn't the same.

A lifetime later, I was stranded in West Palm Beach, Florida, on a Thanksgiving Day, feeling sorry for myself. I ate dinner at a Denny's or an IHOP or something like it. It was either eat that or order some mu shu pork from across the street or grab a Little Debbie cake and a pint of milk.

The waiter brought out the turkey and dressing with a little sliver of cranberry sauce, just like Mama would shake loose. Somebody back in that kitchen had to shake it, too, to get it there. And for some reason, I did not feel so very far away from home.

Not long ago, I wrote a book about Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps the most famous shaker of all time. I heard him play "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in New York City, and he dedicated it to me.

The crowd went wild.

I got hungry.

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