Brian Koppelman Doesn't Want Your Fancy Cranberry Sauce
The holidays will be different this year. Our series, "The One Dish," collects stories about what we're doing for Thanksgiving that will make us feel right at home.
My family loves food, and we love all being together. Most of the time it's my group — which is four of us — and my two sisters Jenny and Stacy, and their kids. We would all get together with my parents, but my mom died 12 years ago, so that changed things a little bit. Sometimes my littler group of four will do Thanksgiving, depending on where we all are in the world. The great thing about it not being a religious holiday is that you can just use it to designate a time to check in and be there with each other, and know that whatever your concept of family is, it is being celebrated along with this idea of gratitude.
Because it is a nondenominational kind of gratitude, it was this celebration of certain American ideals — and we're all proud to be Americans. When we're celebrating, we're all going around the table and we talk about what we've been grateful for over the past year. That transcends merely being a patriotic event; it becomes about recognizing that even in difficult times, we're so fortunate to all return to the table again together a year later. It is one of my favorite meals of the year for the social part.
This year, this uncertainty around it is unsettling. I think it's likely that we'll all get COVID tested and get together. My extended family all lives right near each other. My sisters live on the same piece of property right next to each other, as if it's one piece of property. My dad lives right there too. They're all in the same pod and bubble, and my family has been very good about trying our very best to stay safe. I think it's likely we'll all get together for Thanksgiving, and I certainly hope that's possible.
My wife Amy — who's a wonderful writer and filmmaker — is so great at recognizing the moment and being profoundly present, reminding us of what we ought to be grateful for right then. Our family is a very welcoming crew and it's easy to fold people in. Over the years, if there are people in New York who are away from their family, we've always said, "Oh, come out to Thanksgiving." It's always a great experience. That part of it in normal years, is really easy, and it's got to be the best holiday for it, because who doesn't want to be around when everyone's talking about the positive parts of life? Especially in such difficult times.
We don't do a radically different Thanksgiving than most people do. There've been a couple of years where we added a giant ham, but it's always the turkey, and an oatmeal-based stuffing, because that's what my mom did and that recipe's been passed down. There's also often a bread stuffing and candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows. My mother made this noodle pudding from some really old New York Times recipe with cream cheese in it. Every holiday, that noodle pudding is there. It always was, but since my mom passed away, it's on every table all the time.
But for me, the canonical thing is Ocean Spray cranberry sauce in a can. My friends who are in the food business often will decry it and they want you to use the homemade cranberry sauce. But here's my point: Turkey, even when prepared by the very best chefs in the world, is hit or miss. There are dry parts of turkey, and sometimes the turkey is a little bitter. And when you add the cranberry sauce that's homemade — which is never even a third as sweet as the store-bought — you're basically just crap-shooting the possibility to cover the taste of the turkey.
The store-bought cranberry sauce feels like childhood and warmth and connection. But also it's sweet and bitter and sharp, and it complements turkey better than anything else. On one fork, a little stuffing, a little turkey, a little gravy, and then Ocean Spray cranberry sauce in a can — I'm eight years old and 10 years old and 15 and 20 and 35 and my age now, 54. It just ties everything together like the rug in The Big Lebowski. It's so unsophisticated. It transcends all that you know and have learned about food since. I understand all the reasons people don't like it but it doesn't matter. It's so primal. It's in its own little bowl just jiggling away.
I'm happy to open the can and watch it glump out. The rings are really important there. Amy slid in some organic versions over the years and she said that I just was like, "What is this? This is nasty."
I've lost 35 pounds this year, and I've gotten myself in much better shape. I was worried that obesity is a comorbidity for COVID. I was already at work on this, but that was the final thing. So I got myself out of the obese range, I'm just merely another overweight American now. So it's possible I don't need it this Thanksgiving. But I might take a bite of it, for tradition's sake.
All of these dishes — and whatever the dishes were in your house — are such a powerful emotional trigger, the smells and tastes of food. When I say I'm all those ages, I'm not really being hyperbolic. As you get older, you realize that in the right circumstance, you can access yourself at every age you've been. Food and music for me are the biggest triggers, and smell, which goes with food. So if I have turkey and that stuffing and the Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, I don't want to overstate it, I know my mother is not alive. But it is as if my mom's alive. It's as if we're all together at the Thanksgiving table when we were a smaller crew.
Then it's as if at the same time, we're with the crew that our kids are going to have. It's this continuity that having this ritualized meal each year affords you. That's part of what makes Thanksgiving so great. So when I say I hope I'm with my sisters and my dad on Thanksgiving, I really do. If I'm not though, and I'm eating that food, and I throw on a Zoom with them, it'll be like I'm with them and I'll be connected to them and will be reminded of how much we love and care about one another. And for me, that's the magic of the Thanksgiving meal.