In the opening monologue of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, the Jewish milkman with five daughters who lives in a Russian shetl called Anatevka, says, “You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” I suspect most people seldom think about how for every tradition there had to have been a first time it took place—before it was a tradition. Most of us never consider how a tradition started. There are many different types of traditions. There are all encompassing cultural and religions traditions, destructive traditions that label particular groups or people as inferior and deny them rights, and there are fun cultural traditions. Groups of friends and families also have their traditions.
In my family, the cranberry sauce squirrel is one of our most cherished traditions. Every Thanksgiving the squirrel makes his appearance on our table . . .except for the few times the cranberry sauce did not gel sufficiently and we ate delicious, runny cranberry sauce instead.
The squirrel is made by pouring the cooked cranberry sauce into a ceramic mold. The mold itself is a bit chipped and stained, but it still holds memories, as well as cranberry sauce.
As a child, I never thought about my mother spending time and effort to make the sauce. It simply appeared on the table. Later, part of the “ritual of the squirrel” involved its dramatic unmolding. My mother would let the mold sit for a few minutes in warm water, then loosen the edges with a knife. She covered the mold with a platter, and for some reason that no one has ever been able to discover or explain, she turned the mold and platter upside down and placed them on her head. She then lowered the whole thing, lifted the mold–and there would be the cranberry sauce squirrel on the platter.
Until recently I never wondered which came first, the sauce or the mold? So I called my mother. My mother explained that my father, who was an antiques dealer, brought the mold home one day, over fifty years ago, but she had already learned to make cranberry sauce. So the sauce came first.
My mother learned to make cranberry sauce from her mother-in-law. She makes it the way her mother-in-law made it, but there is no recipe. Her own mother, who came to the United States with her family from what I picture as an Anatevka type village in Russia, did not make an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. My father’s mother was younger when she arrived in the US, and she was more “Americanized.” My mother learned how to make other Thanksgiving dishes from her, too. As she said of her own mother, who grew up in a kosher-keeping household, “she didn’t know from giblet gravy!”
Cranberries are native to North America. Although there is no record of the Wampanoag and Pilgrims dining on cranberry sauce during the 1621 Thanksgiving feast, many American Indians did eat cranberries. In seventeenth-century America, days of Thanksgiving were celebrated throughout the colonies as religious celebrations. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November. To me, the holiday is about family, our traditions, and food—a lot of food!
My mother took over the tradition of making cranberry sauce after she and my father bought their first house in the 1950s, and my grandparents moved to an apartment. Many years later, I took over the tradition of hosting and preparing the Thanksgiving meal—except for preparing the cranberry sauce. At ninety years old, my mother no longer has the strength to lift the platter or to make the sauce. My niece now produces the sauce—with my mother’s supervision because there is still no recipe. The unmolding this year involved several family members, and it was a success, even without a dramatic above the head launch. The tradition is safe and has safely endured another year. The ceramic mold has been washed and put away at my house, where it lives for most of the year. Next Thanksgiving it will return, and amid the mountains of food, the red cranberry squirrel on our dinner table–made from a native American fruit to commemorate a somewhat mythical feast between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians using the non-recipe of a Russian-Jewish immigrant poured into a ceramic mold bought by my father over half a century ago–will remind us of our family history and traditions.