Welcome to Jiggle All The Way, The Takeout’s holiday celebration of Jell-O, gelatin, and all things wiggly. We’ll be releasing new feature stories and original holiday recipes every day this week, and each of them will have a little bit of wobble.
Journey with me, if you will, to a white elephant gift exchange on the Missouri-Arkansas border. Everyone’s seated on shag carpeting, the living room walls may or may not be wood-paneled, the TV is tuned to the Sirius Mavericks Country Christmas channel, and my five-foot-tall mom is cussing and flinging Cranberry Mess into the air.
Are you with me? Good.
What I’ve just described is a pretty standard holiday scene for my family. The wood paneling comes and goes, the Sirius holiday tunes change from year to year, but one thing remains constant: my mom’s gelatinous holiday side dish, which I’ve dubbed Cranberry Mess. Cranberry Mess is technically a spin on cranberry salad, but I think “cranberry salad” evokes a certain creaminess a la Millionaire Salad, with all its fluffy marshmallows. Cranberry Mess isn’t creamy, and it certainly isn’t a salad. It also isn’t cranberry sauce, per se—it has a Jell-O base, but it isn’t made in a mold, meaning it’s a lot looser than some of the jiggly creations you encounter during the holidays.
My mom’s been making Cranberry Mess for my entire life. Her mom made it before her. In my family, you cannot legally host a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal without Cranberry Mess. If you forget to make it, the hard-drinkin’ ghost of my grandmother will rise from the grave, squish your head in one of her armpits, and make you drive her to Walgreens in her maroon Oldsmobile.
But for the longest time, I was under the impression that everyone actually hated Cranberry Mess. Pitching this story to my editor, I swore up and down that the dish went uneaten year after year, serving only as a way for my mom to stay connected to my grandmother who died in 2014. It wasn’t until my first Thanksgiving away from home that I realized the cold, jiggly truth: Cranberry Mess kicks ass.
My mom could make Cranberry Mess in her sleep, so she doesn’t use a recipe anymore. But the original Cranberry Mess is featured in Salads For All Seasons, an obscure hand-bound cookbook my grandma had in her kitchen. It’s nearly identical to Mama’s Cranberry Salad, an uber-popular Food52 recipe. Faced with my first Thanksgiving away from home (thanks, COVID!), I decided to take a crack at Cranberry Mess for novelty’s sake. I asked my mom to snap a picture of the recipe and text it to me, and this is what she sent:
As you can see, this is a terrible, inconveniently cropped picture. I asked her to send a better picture, and she replied “BUSY!!!!!” so I made do.
The day before Thanksgiving, I raided my neighborhood Jewel for the fixings, flipped on a country Christmas station, and rolled up my sleeves to make my own Cranberry Mess. Why? Because I’m sentimental, I guess. I didn’t expect to like the stuff, but it seemed impossible to have a Thanksgiving without it. (Plus, I didn’t want to invoke the wrath of my grandmother’s ghostly armpit.)
Faced with my mom’s objectively ridiculous recipe snapshot, I gave her a call. I asked if she’d walk me through some of the finer points of the recipe. (“What does it mean to grind a cranberry? How small should I chop the apple bits? Should I grate the orange?”) She was very busy watching prestige television, but she sighed and gave me some tips. (“Grinding a cranberry = chucking it in the food processor. Doesn’t matter how small you chop the apple, and do not grate the orange. Grind the cranberry first, then add the apple and orange. Stop calling me.”)
I followed her instructions, threw the thing in the fridge, and let it chill overnight. On Thanksgiving morning, I threw it on some toast.
The Cranberry Mess was... good. Very good.
The Jell-O’s slurpable texture contrasted nicely with the toothsome bits of apple and orange, and the tart cranberries kept the whole thing from being too much of a sugar bomb. Turns out, Cranberry Mess is the perfect lip-puckering answer to any and all heavy, carb-laden holiday dishes. That night, I added the stuff to almost everything I had prepared for a mini-Thanksgiving. I dipped my rolls in Cranberry Mess. I poured Cranberry Mess over my Popeye’s Cajun turkey. I mixed Cranberry Mess into my stuffing and ate Cranberry Mess with a spoon when I was too full for solids.
How had I convinced myself that Cranberry Mess was some gross, purely sentimental holiday side dish? I checked with my sister, and she assured me that the dish has always been a crowd favorite. If I really want to get introspective, my misremembering might have something to do with that childish insistence that your parents’ traditions are a big ol’ waste of time. My poor judgement also might stem from this weird, lingering prejudice I hold against the recipe’s birthplace of Mendon, Missouri, the remote township where my grandmother lived until she moved south with my hillbilly grandfather. I’m not sure why I feel that way about Mendon; maybe it’s because the place is dusty, flat, and unforgiving, a gray backdrop for my grandmother’s harsh childhood. Bias aside, those flatlanders sure can cook.
I ate Cranberry Mess for days after Thanksgiving. I even licked the bowl clean when I polished it off. It made me feel like a kid again, but it also made me feel like a real adult—in the sense that adults must, at some point, begrudgingly acknowledge that some family traditions are worth revisiting. While I won’t be indulging in all of my mom’s culinary customs (the woman does unspeakable things to cottage cheese), this is one that I’m excited to continue.