There are few things that conjure up memories of my childhood quite the way cooking does. The simplest things like the smell of bacon cooking in the morning or the perfect summer cantaloupe takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Pine Island, Louisiana where I spent some of my summer vacations as a child. This time of year, though, I wait anxiously for fresh cranberries to show up in the grocery store so I can make my mother’s cranberry bread. It has been a seasonal tradition in my family for as long as I can remember and now, every loaf I make reminds of those times spent in the kitchen with her, watching and learning, but most of all just being with her.
When I was little, it was my job to go through the bowl of fresh cranberries and discard any that were soft or bruised. Once my mother knew I could handle a knife without severing a finger, I graduated to cutting the cranberries in half and to this day, I remember asking her to help me whenever I had to decide if a particularly large one needed to be cut in half or in thirds. There was no way I could have know then just how important her guidance and advice would be to me in later years when there was more at stake than a couple of cranberries..
As the years went by, the smell of cranberry bread baking in my mother’s kitchen came to mean it was time to put extra leaves in the dining room table where they would stay until after Christmas because my brother would be coming home from college. In later years he’d bring with him his new wife and I would bring my husband. Eventually our numbers grew some more as the children came along and the holiday season took on a whole new meaning. But just as it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without turkey, it wouldn’t have been Christmas morning without my mother’s cranberry bread.
So much has changed since then. Today we count calories and fuss over fat grams so the meals I grew up on like pot roast and mashed potatoes, the ones that can still bring back memories, are few and far between. And, like most families, parents pass on, children move away, and the world we live in bears little resemblance to what we knew as children. Perhaps that is the reason why certain things from our past ring with such resonance. They remind us of who we are and where we came from.
So today I made this year’s first batch of cranberry bread using the original recipe written in my mother’s handwriting on a card now yellowed with age. For me it’s the official start of the holiday season. I can’t begin to recall how many loaves of cranberry bread I’ve made over my life time, but every time I pour through a bowl of fresh cranberries, looking for the ones that won’t make the cut, I think of my mom and all the holiday seasons that have come before. And just like last year and the year before that, with every turn of my wooden spoon I will be reminded that this annual ritual is more than combining a few simple ingredients to create something delicious. It is a connection to my past that fills my kitchen with familiar smells and my heart with sweet memories.