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An Ode to Cranberry Dream Salad

(By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Leslie Waugh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:

Of the many attitudes I have toward food, ambivalence isn't one. There's no wishy-washiness about my likes and dislikes. Ice cream, yes. Oysters, no. And good food stays with me, often in anatomically uncomfortable places but also in my imaginary scrapbook of meals, whether they were consumed in restaurants, on vacations or during holidays with my family. They are memories I can taste.

My first meal at a fancy restaurant, for example, stands out for the palate-cleansing sorbet my parents and I had between courses -- how decadent! -- and the lemon souffle we ordered for dessert. Was any food more fraught with the potential for disaster? To an adolescent, the drama of having to order the souffle early so that it could rise created an added mystique. Its rise was successful, and the dessert was heavenly.

Now, as the holidays draw near, I find myself missing the taste of something I never really liked.

Let me state for the record that my mother's cooking is delicious. I look forward to the once-a-year food that means I'm home. I hardly ever get there for Thanksgiving, so Christmastime is our big ta-dah. My mom, who lives in Asheville, N.C., takes requests from my sister and me for our favorites, which usually involve dessert. Her raspberry trifle is unmatched. It is one of the many labor-intensive products that make up our buffet, and the leftovers are great for breakfast.

There is also something comforting in its predictability. I know exactly how the trifle will taste, every year: the crumbly sponge cake covered in raspberry jam, formed into a roll and sliced; the thick homemade custard (I had to get help from the good folks at Jell-O when I tried to make it); the sherry soaked into the cake, for added zing; and the real whipped cream on top, its fat coating the roof of my mouth.

But there is one dish that for my sister and me (and, as it turns out, most everyone who ever ate it) evokes a mixture of shame and nostalgia: shame for having lived a lie for so long, and nostalgia for its absence. How fitting, because "nostalgia" comes from the Greek words for homesickness and pain.

This concoction was like our family's fruitcake: It kept appearing, but no one really knew what to make of it. Unlike fruitcake, though, it could not be regifted. Was it a side dish or a pre-dessert? My mother made it for decades until someone (we suspect my husband) innocently asked: Does anyone actually like this stuff?

No, not really, we said. So it disappeared.

I was afraid we had hurt Mom's feelings, but she didn't seem too bothered.

"And all those years, I thought people liked it," she said.

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