The hot cranberries are starting to burst. Steam building up inside each ellipsoid ultimately forces its taut magenta skin to explode, like a gum bubble that's thinned to the point of failure. As they break open, their juices coalesce with those of the lemon and apple as well as the melted sugar, all of which swirls like lava around the pot. I love the pop-pop symphony that demarcates this stage of cranberry sauce making. It means not only that the cook must take care to avoid being splattered by hot innards but also that the finished product is at hand. I am newly grateful for the pot's depth; its walls provide a bit of protection for the sensitive skin on my hands and arms, bare to the elements as I stir and stir and stir. The water bath is boiling away on the next burner, in an even deeper pot but one with a lid. You don't cover jam while it's cooking. On the contrary, you want as much water to evaporate as quickly as possible so that the mixture's sugar concentration reaches 65% or so. Then, you'll achieve set which is the line between a runny sauce and a spreadable preserve.
Nanny never water bath processed her jars of cranberry sauce. I guess she figured that if the fruit slurry was hot enough going in to the jars -and because it contained enough sugar and acid anyway- to cause their lids to suck inward hermetically shortly after being applied, all would be well. And it was, even though no one would ever say so now. Botulism! Spoilage! People seem more worried these days, but I digress.
I remember the afternoon Nanny formally taught me to make her sauce. Her knives were always so dull and her favorite was a little paring knife. That's what she used to dice up the lemon that day, rind and all. It seemed to take more effort than it would if she were to use a larger or sharper blade, but she never complained or, to be honest, even mentioned it, and her little lemon cubes looked perfect.
In Louisiana, Mayhaw trees (recently named the official state fruit tree) are abundant and produce bunches of berries that look like red blueberries. My cousin, Eleanor, who is much older and thus has always been known to me as Nanan and more of an aunt, was a regular attendee of the Mayhaw Festival in Starks. She'd bring back gallons of freshly pressed mayhaw juice and that's what served as the base of Nanny's cranberry sauce, a recipe handed down through the generations in her family. I have to FedEx frozen juice in from out of state which can be both a challenge to find and expensive, so make do with unfiltered apple juice. You really can't much tell the difference, but I hate to admit that because the mayhaw juice looms large in my memory bank as something really special.
As the sauce cooked down, out came the box of Sure-Jell and the old canning funnel. As I later learned, cranberries have a lot of natural pectin -think about what happens if you drop a fresh one; it bounces, right? Pectin-fortified cell walls are the why.- and the Sure-Jell isn't necessary, but at that time, I just followed Nanny's lead, because why fix it if it ain't broke?
Once the pectin was incorporated and the jam sheeted rather than rained off the back of a wooden spoon, it was time to ladle the cranberry sauce carefully into the waiting mason jars. This is where the funnel became instrumental, another means of protecting us from the scalding jam and the jars from drips which just make a sticky mess of everything. Nanny would apply the lids and bands and screw them finger-tight, placing jar after sealed jar on a dish towel on the countertop.
We'd sit at her Formica table and listen to the pings of lids sealing shut, each rubber flange gripping tightly to the glass rim on which it sat. Those pings were musical gratification and the promise of things to come. An afternoon of cooking together was complete, as would be the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas tables on which the cranberry sauce always starred, the crown jewels in our family's stash.
I have several canning funnels now, shiny and stainless and new. But today, when I made Nanny's cranberry sauce, I used her old aluminum funnel even though its narrow lip renders it less functional than I'd like. I had to take special care to keep the sauce from spilling over and onto my own dishtowel. In those moments of quiet concentration nostalgia slipped in, and I missed Nanny.
I wanted so badly to call her, the her from before the last years, the Nanny at the Formica table. I wanted to tell her about the boys and ask her advice. I wanted her perspective, the sort that can only be gleaned from decades of living and mothering and seeing what comes out on the other side.
"Nanny," I'd say, "I've had to take away all the boys' privileges because they just haven't been listening. They're going to have to earn each one back. Do you think that sounds reasonable? What would you do?"
I imagine her answer would be a hug over the phone, the perfect words in the perfect voice. Then I'd say, "You old fox, you always know. Are you gonna go out on the town tonight?"
And she'd laugh like she always did when I told her she was a foxy fox and probably say she was going to watch Wheel of Fortune and tuck in early.
And we'd quiet down and say how much we loved each other and that we'd talk soon.