Cranberry Horseradish & Sour Cream Relish

Sounds yucky, looks horrible, tastes divine!

Thanksgiving dinner on Annie's farm is about as traditional as it gets. Picture a sprawling hundred year old house set on a foundation of hand-hewn marble blocks, with several woodstoves roaring, a freshwater spring bubbling happily through the basement and several relatively benign ghosts haunting the unused back bedrooms and narrow passageways. This is all set on a patch of bucolic pasture land in the picturesque village of Dorset, Vermont.  

This morning, Thanksgiving day, the old house is flush with people.   Representatives of at least three generations are milling about and creating that joyful chaos we recognize as good cheer.  Babies ride around wide-eyed in snuggly backpacks, a posse of little kids run up and down the wide wooden stair case shrieking every time they find themselves staring into the yellow eyes of the stuffed Great Horned Owl perched on a bookshelf at the top.  Teenagers mill around uncomfortably, angsty with the passions of budding adulthood, weaving and dodging amongst each other in an eternal mating dance.  The grownup kids vacillate between hanging around in the kitchen practicing their adulthood, and leading groups of little ones on ghost tours.

The huge farmer's kitchen is the center of industry and Annie is the impresario commanding her troops.  The largest tom turkey you can imagine is perched, center stage, on the long kitchen island. Arcane final preparations are being performed prior to its departure into one of the two ovens.  Surrounding the bird are bowls of vegetables, pies of several varieties, loaves of fresh bread cooling on wire racks, a large pitcher of home-made eggnog and a large bottle of Oban single malt scotch.  

Annie's little army of helpers is diverse in the most pleasant possible sense of the word.  Old folks settled happily out of harm's way near the woodstove,  youngsters judiciously wielding large sharp knives on piles of raw veggies, men with rosy cheeks fresh from hauling firewood in from the sub-zero woodpile, flushed and fecund women brushing a wisp of hair from their face as they knead a pile of yeasty dough.  Over in the corner, Annie's two Indonesian exchange students observe these strange proceedings with bemused curiosity.

My family arrived last night, honored to be a part of the show and delighted with our backstage passes.  We even got to stay in one of the "ghost rooms." This morning at breakfast my son and I took turns spicing up our stories of suspicious midnight rumblings and creaking floorboards.  Annie was singularly nonplussed, the ghosts all have names and are treated with the same accord as the rest of the residents.  The only one here, corporeal or not, who gets special treatment is Louie, an aging dachshund whose back legs are giving out and sometimes needs a lift out to the porch to 'regain the peaceful feeling.'

My kids are variously employed around the kitchen and house and I haven't seen my wife for hours as she's off at Annie's brother's house assisting with ancillary baking or some such.  I too have a job to perform, and I'm jealously guarding it from encroachment by well-intentioned helpers.  In a thoughtless moment some months ago, I bragged about a wonderful cranberry relish utilizing horseradish, onions and sour cream. Before I knew it, I was charged with making this putative marvel of cranberry cuisine for the party at large, some thirty guests.  Now, amid the hubbub of turkey day, with my sensibilities mildly befuddled by injudicious nips of Annie's excellent scotch, I'm filled with self-importance at the magnitude of my task.  I've made this claim, supported it vigorously against the doubts of the traditionalists in our party and must now deliver the goods.  The scary truth is that I heard about this recipe while listening to National Public Radio in my car and I'd neither made, nor tasted it before.  It sounded great to me, but this is a tough crowd and my reputation was on the line.

There's a nice backstory behind the recipe involving NPR's Susan Stamberg's first introduction of her family recipe at the public radio station's Christmas party many years ago.  I can imagine what she must have been feeling then, having attempted to describe the merits of a Pepto Bismol pink dish comprised of fruit, milk product, onions and horseradish.  Then as now, it's a tough sell, making the culinary triumph all the sweeter.

Casting aside all doubt, I rose to the occasion, strapped on my apron and commandeered the food processor to the jeers and jibes of the kitchen crew.  The dish came together pretty much as described and, wisely as it turns out, I refused any requests for tasting prior to the feast.  Once the deed was done, I poured myself a generous tumbler of the aforementioned spirits and took up a comfortable chair next to Louie, glad to be out of the limelight.

I think the reason Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday is that I have a lot to be thankful for. The blessings and gifts that life has heaped on me are humbling to consider, but pretty much everyone has something to be thankful for.  Especially here in America, we exist in a veritable embarrassment of riches and dedicating a day for thanks feels right and proper.  The community preparation of food also appeals to me greatly.  Credit that to the pleasures of life on a commune in my distant hippie past, and some innate feeling that sharing food is the very essence of the human experience. I like Thanksgiving in general, and sharing it with Annie and her delightful tribe made for one of the most memorable ever. 

The dinner was laid along a makeshift table, comprised of everything we could find with a horizontal surface. It stretched from the kitchen, through the dining room and into the parlor.  Even this behemoth couldn't hold everyone, so smaller kids-table satellites dotted the periphery.  The giant turkey was stationed at the end of the table with side dishes, condiments and bottles of carefully selected wine deployed up and down its length.  Before we could even wonder how this feast could be served, the plates began to be passed clockwise around the table.  Each of us simultaneously served the plates handed to us with the dishes close at hand, as we carefully monitored our own plate's progress, proffering selection and quantity advice as it proceeded.  Divine chaos, but somehow it worked.

I noted that my cranberry relish was getting pretty good exposure along the way and, after a toast by Annie's brother, we set to the task at hand.  My own first impression of the relish was horrifying!  I took a large forkful all by itself and almost gagged on the oddly powerful combination of textures and tastes.  It turns out that's a little like chewing a mouthful of Altoid mints, highly inadvisable.  By the time I had resurrected my taste buds with a drink of water from the kitchen, the first accurate reports were filtering in: "Wow, that's weird but great!"  The proper way to eat the relish is one small nip at a time, backed up with a little turkey and perhaps a bit of sweet potato.  The relish cranks up the volume of the other flavors in an unexpected and delightful way.  

Two pleasant hours later the meal was over and we sat happy and satiated, euphoric with the food, wine and companionship.  It was the most memorable Thanksgiving ever and the Cranberry Horseradish Relish was generally acknowledged to have been a success. 

Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish1 

2 cups whole raw cranberries, washed

1 small onion

3/4 cup sour cream

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons horseradish from a jar ("red is a bit milder than white")

Grind the raw berries and onion together. ("I use an old-fashioned meat grinder," says Stamberg. "I'm sure there's a setting on the food processor that will give you a chunky grind -- not a puree.")

Add everything else and mix.

Put in a plastic container and freeze.

Early Thanksgiving morning, move it from freezer to refrigerator compartment to thaw. ("It should still have some little icy slivers left.")

The relish will be thick, creamy, and shocking pink. ("OK, Pepto Bismol pink. It has a tangy taste that cuts through and perks up the turkey and gravy. It’s also good on next-day turkey sandwiches, and with roast beef.")

Makes 1 1/2 pints.

- Happy Thanksgiving!


1 Susan Stamberg's Original recipe:, permission to reprint the recipe has been received from NPR, and is included below.


12 December, 2005

Dear Mr. Meyer:

You may reprint Ms. Stamberg's recipe and your experience with it in the website you note below. Please provide a link back to

Best regards,

Abigail Potter | Rights & Reuse Associate | NPR