Every year, growing up, my mom would make a dessert for Thanksgiving, which, I later learned, no one else had heard of. It’s not just “cranberry pudding”, but rather, it’s always referred to as “Aunt Gladys’ steamed cranberry pudding.”
Gladys was my great aunt, a woman I never met. She was my mother’s actual aunt, and every time my mom made the pudding, she would tell a story about the aunts.
According to my mother, her mother owned a punch bowl that her sisters would sometimes borrow. (According to my uncle, though, the three sisters shared the punchbowl, which was crystal, with buttons and bows pattern and matching glasses.) Sharing the punch bowl between three households meant that it would have to be shipped here and there, and there was a great deal of planning involved. It’s a little unclear to me now where the truth lies, but I’ll go with my mother’s version.
According to my mother, her mother owned it, and gave it to her. My grandmother was the youngest daughter, as is my mother (and, by the way, so am I. Not that I'm coveting the punch bowl.). The punch bowl became hers -- maybe on her wedding day, which was, in fact, one of the last times the punch bowl was used. Or maybe I’m making that part up. Stick with me, readers. This story is abut to pick up!
Aunt Lou, sister to Aunt Glady’s, called one day and asked to borrow the punch bowl, probably in about 1962. Or was it 1959? This is the kind of diversion the story would take, and is strangely laced with geographic detail. (Route talk.) When they came by to get it, did they take the Hudson Avenue and cross the Broad Street Bridge? Or Empire Boulevard? At any rate, Lou either called to reclaim her punch bowl, or borrow it from my mother, and my mother complied.
I know. This is the part in the story like when the alcoholic walks towards home and his hungry waiting family with a cashed paycheck in his pocket, and doesn’t pass the bar, but instead, stops in for just one drink. It’s that moment, when my obedient mother loans out the punch bowl, that gives this story a little movement.
Lou moved to Florida shortly after borrowing the punch bowl, taking it with her. Gasp! I know.
Then, poor Aunt Lou becomes senile, or at least that’s the excuse that’s offered, and forgets to return the punch bowl to my mother. She eventually dies, and her grief-stricken husband, Uncle Charlie, not knowing the whole deal about the punch bowl, gives it to a neighbor. In Florida. Some new neighbor that no one knows. I know. Gasp here again, please.
This only happened about 50 years ago, so my mom is still, and I mean this in the fondest way possible, just the tiniest bit bitter about it. I’m a little bitter by association, because I like to imagine that the punch bowl, were it not for the Terrible Uncle Charlie, would have been mine, passing from youngest daughter to youngest daughter.
So at any rate, this story came up every single time we had the cranberry pudding during my childhood, exactly twice a year: once at Thanksgiving, and once at Christmas.
I decided to carry on this tradition with my own children. For about 10 years in a row, I made the pudding, and told the story of the punchbowl. A story that you may find a little dull, but really, it has intrigue, confusion, theft, betrayal, disappointment. What more could one want in a story?
On about year eleven, I forgot to make it. (Please gasp here too, if you can.) At dessert time, I mentioned it.
“Oh my gosh! I forgot to make Aunt Gladys’ steamed cranberry pudding,” I exclaimed, as we gobbled pumpkin pie.
And my kids just stared at me blankly. “Huh?”
As unbelievable as it seems, they had absolutely no memory of the pudding, the punch bowl, or anything. Like they had fallen into some weird spell, a form of amnesia that only involved the pudding and the punch bowl.
So I told the story, and they didn’t even seem to recognize it. But I think they got the point that This is Who They Are, and they damn well better remember that story in the future, because these are their people. Their people are still discussing a punch bowl that has been missing for 50 years, and still haggling over who was at fault, who owned it, and most of all, saying, sheesh, Uncle Charlie, what were you thinking?
Because that’s what families do. They love and they lose and they squabble, and they cling to odd details, but most importantly, they share their stories.
As an epilogue, I will tell you that my sister found a punch bowl that fit the description of ours on E-bay. All of the cousins, aunts, and sisters kicked in a few bucks each, and we’ve got it back. It lives with my sister now, but I’m pretty sure its rightfully mine – youngest to youngest, and so on.
I’ll give you the recipe, which I’m pleased to say I know by heart, but you must promise to tell the story of the punch bowl as you eat it, because it matches the pudding itself. A little bit confusing, a little bit sour, sweet in a lump in the throat kind of way, and quite rich. Overall, delicious.
Aunt Glady’s Steamed Cranberry Pudding
2 heaping cups fresh cranberries
½ cup molasses
1 1/3 cup flour
2t baking soda
½ cup warm water
- Sweep the kitchen floor.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a child around, pull a chair over to the sink for them to stand on. Fill the sink with cold water, pour the cranberries in, and let the child sort through for the bad ones. Use this time to talk about the punch bowl. Be prepared for water everywhere. If there’s not child around, wash the cranberries in the ordinary way.
- Cut the cranberries in half manually, and chase them around the kitchen for a while. Pick them up from your cleanish floor, and put them back in the bowl. Or, if you don’t have that kind of time, toss them in the food processor and pulse for a few seconds so they’re sort of in half.
- Add flour and toss it all about. Add molasses.
- Add the soda to the warm water. Pour into the cranberry mixture, stir, and immediately begin steaming.
- About the steaming. My mom always steams it in coffee cans, two-pound empty Maxwell house cans, to be exact. I don’t drink the canned Maxwell house, but each year, I’d go out and purchase some, and drink it for a while, just for the can, because it was part of the recipe. After a few years, I realized you can actually buy pudding molds. Unless you’re a real purist, do that, because the Maxwell house, not so good.
- Lightly grease the mold, pour the cranberry goo into it, and put the mold (covered) into a pot of boiling water.) Make it so the mold actually sits on the bottom, and the water comes about half-way or two-thirds of the way up the side of the mold. If the mold is bobbing around in the water, disaster will ensue. Trust me on this.
- Turn the heat down to simmer, and steam for one and a half to two hours. I know, that’s a huge range, and how will you know? The point is, it doesn’t matter. This step is just to give ample time to really dig into the punch bowl story. Claim it as your own.
- Make sauce for the pudding:
½ cup butter,
1 cup sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
1 t vanilla
Slice the pudding, and serve it in a bowl with the sauce.
Enjoy, my friends. Happy thanksgiving.