Nicholas Mackara isn't about to drive over to his parents' house for Thanksgiving to sit down to a dish of some fancy homemade cranberry sauce that Martha Stewart might serve. He's so determined that his cranberry sauce come from a can that he assigns himself the job of bringing it.
It's a thing of beauty on his holiday table, a log-shaped gelatinous roll with ridges that signal to purists like himself that no one is trying to put an imposter on the menu.
"I think the ridges are the most important part," said the 21-year-old resident of Clementon, N.J. "Then you know it definitely came from a can and our mom didn't make her own (cranberry) sauce and put it in a cylinder shape before we got there."
If Thanksgiving is a time for a family meal, it's also a time for a recurring debate: Should the sauce come from the can or a time-honored family recipe? Though it's impossible to tell how many others have drawn that line in the stuffing over this Thanksgiving staple the way Mackara has, it's clear he's got a lot of company. Ocean Spray, the nation's largest producer of cranberry sauce, reports that of the 86.4 million cans it sells a year, 72 million of them are sold between September and the end of December.
On Facebook, groups devoted to canned cranberry sauce have popped up — from the one Mackara and a friend, Alexandra Shephard, launched a few years back called "Cranberry Sauce in the shape of the can makes my Thanksgiving" to "When Cranberry Sauce comes out of the can with ridges." There's also one called "Cranberry Sauce is only good if it's in the shape of a can," which includes the motto: "If it ain't from a can, it's garbage."
In an era where there are television networks devoted to home cooking and dietitians warn against the dangers of processed foods, the love of canned cranberry can seem like a bit of a dietary discord. Devotees of canned cranberry sauce say the reasons begin and end with the past, and that the sight of the glistening can-shaped tube of jelly conjures up memories of Thanksgiving meals of long ago.
"It looks like a log of happiness," said Shannon Ervin, a 24-year-old mother of three in Harahan, La., who can't remember a Thanksgiving when canned cranberry sauce wasn't served.
Sandy Oliver, a food historian, said it would be hard to overstate the importance of canned cranberry sauce to some families, particularly for a holiday in which even the slightest change in the menu is viewed as a treasonous offense.
"You don't mess with Thanksgiving," said Oliver, co-author of "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie." "If you grew up with canned cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, that is what will taste right for you at the table and if you do something else it is going to be at variance with your childhood memory."
As a result, normally sophisticated eaters load up their plates with the same green bean casseroles, Jell-O salad — heavy on the mini marshmallows — and the white bread stuffing their parents piled on their plates when they were busy kicking their brothers and sisters under the table.
"My aunt one year brought over the homemade kind and nobody but her ate it," said Heather Hoffman, a 24-year-old Chicago teacher, who has had canned cranberry sauce since her grandmother served it when she was a little girl.
Robert Sietsema has heard those kinds of comments before. The New York writer recently included canned cranberry sauce among his five worst Thanksgiving dishes for a blog on the Village Voice and can't believe anybody would eat canned cranberry sauce if they didn't have to.
"I hate it, it's just awful," said Sietsema. "To begin with, nobody eats things from cans any more if they can afford not to." Especially, he says if it's "some kind of freak Jell-O."
Maybe so. But Alexandra Shephard arrived at her parents' house in Williamsburg, Va. from her home in Orlando, Fla., this week fully expecting the familiar sight of cranberry sauce sliding from the can to a dish.
"I remember how intrigued I was at the lump of red jelly stuff that retained the shape of a can," said Shephard, who started the Facebook page with Mackara a couple years back. "I don't remember actually eating it (but) I remember it was always at the table."
Her father, she said, would only eat the canned sauce so eventually she got her courage up and tried homemade cranberry sauce even though she knew she didn't like the taste of the bitter little red berries. And she liked them, precisely because it didn't taste like cranberries.
She looks at it as a feat of engineering that the can-shaped sauce can keep its figure for hours. And she eats it because, just as Oliver suggested, she likes the uncranberryness of sauce, from the texture to the sweet taste.
For Bruce Scheonberger, presentation is everything. That helps explain why the 54-year-old Toledo attorney was eager to share a technique that ensures the cranberry sauce he puts on the table this Thanksgiving will look exactly the same as it always has.
After completely opening one end of the can, he makes a small opening in the other end. "You blow in it gently and it slides out and retains all of its ridges," he said. "I have it sitting straight up like a can."