The Untold Story Behind 'Mama's Cranberry Salad'

Our most popular Thanksgiving recipe for two years running.

November  5, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

You'd probably think I was yanking your chain if I told you our most popular Thanksgiving recipe the last couple of Novembers wasn't a turkey, or a mashed potato, or even a pie—but a cranberry sauce.

Yep, you heard that right.

In 2017 and 2018, as our traffic numbers show us, the recipe page you all visited the most in the month of November was this beauty by longtime community member Kayb:

Mama's Cranberry Salad, uploaded in 2010, is reminiscent of the American jello salads that pervaded kitchens in the 1960s (though an earlier version called "Perfection Salad" can be cited back to 1904). Whether you serve it as a mold or in a bowl, it's a delicious alternative to canned cranberry sauce.

To learn more about the popular recipe, and the "Mama" behind it, I reached out to Kayb via email.

"It goes back at least 60 years," she wrote me, "and I can never remember being without it. My grandmother lived with us, so I don't know if she brought the recipe with her, or if it was something Mama discovered or came up with. I just know it was a constant.

"The best sign the holidays were getting near was when the sausage grinder came in from the smokehouse. It was a massive thing, mounted on a 2x10 board that rested across two kitchen chairs. All the fruit and nuts would go through it into a big dishpan. I would sit astride the board on one chair and Mama on the other to crank. When I got older, I'd take my turn cranking. We'd sit and talk while we ground the fruit, or she would sing ... that's where I learned the lyrics to Roger Miller's 'King of the Road' and Marty Robbins' 'El Paso.'

"Once we got through with the cranberry salad and got it in the refrigerator, we'd wash the grinder and then grind the coconut for fresh coconut cake, more nuts for whatever holiday baking she was doing, and candied fruit for other sweets. She loved to do 'fancy' baking and candy making, oddly enough (because she was a Type 1 diabetic and couldn't eat any of it!)."

It goes back at least 60 years, and I can never remember being without it.

And the jello is important here, distinguishing it as a gelatin "salad" versus just a sauce.

"Mama was always quite insistent on raspberry jello," Kayb says. "I used cherry one year when I couldn't find raspberry, and it decidedly tasted different. The raspberry's tartness plays well with the tart elements of the other fruit. Cherry and strawberry are too sweet."

Have you made this recipe before? Let us know in the comments below.
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Eric Kim is a Senior Editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the Digital Manager at Food Network, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.


Steph November 18, 2019
I have a question. I’m making this to serve to, I pray, a large crowd. How far in advance can I make it?
Linda D. November 6, 2019
When I was a little girl, we always had this cranberry salad at Thanksgiving at my Grandma's house. Then when my Mom took over the meal, she too, made the salad when it came my turn, the recipe got lost somehow. To date, it is the best cranberry salad ever ; but, I couldn't find the right recipe until now...thanks.