In honor of that Twitter trend about sharing your most controversial food opinion, and a national day set aside for overeating, let me tell you about cranberry fluff, a salad in only the broadest sense of the term and a Hamstra family holiday tradition.
If you grew up in the Midwest, you have likely eaten “ salads” of many kinds. You have, almost certainly, slopped a ladleful of Snickers salad onto a paper plate and plopped yourself down at an aging picnic table, your movement sliding its metal base against the concrete floor of the public park’s picnic structure and making a horrifying screech rattle that you resolutely ignored, so busy were you picking all the apples out of your little pile of cool whip and eating them, one by one, so you could finish your meal with what amounted to most of a Snickers bar covered in hydrogenated vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup. (A truly glorious experience.)
This is what I imagine, every year, when I load my plate with cranberry fluff.
Fluff is not—alas—much like Snickers salad, except for the shared base ingredient: Cool Whip. (Or, rather, whatever store-brand imitation whipped cream is on sale when my grandmother soldiers off to collect her holiday ingredients.) Fluff has just enough Cool Whip to evoke the Snickers salad experience, to suggest to you that this meringue-like pink mass will be sweet and indulgent. It is not.
It may have been, once. But when I was in the seventh grade, the year my grandparents moved from their sprawling acreage on Hartstrait road to a tidy condo, they watched a documentary about the obesity epidemic and decided to eschew added sugars, which meant that the cranberry fluff was prepared without it. (This was also the year Grandma started making dehydrated apple chips with enough cinnamon to coat your tongue entirely; the documentary had suggested that cinnamon lowered one’s cholesterol.) The foregoing of sugar didn’t make the fluff healthy, exactly: it contained cranberries, pulled out of a Ziploc in my grandmother’s freezer and run through her forty-year-old food processor, green grapes in clean halves, but also all that Cool Whip and a full bag of tiny marshmallows. Apples, maybe, or pineapple. But again, mostly Cool Whip and tiny marshmallows. We were all in Indiana that year to help with the move, maybe the only Thanksgiving the cousins had ever spent together, and there were enough of us that the kids—most of us in middle school and high school then—were assigned to the breakfast table while the adults ate in the dining room. My cousin Peter took one bite of his fluff, screwed up his nose in distaste, and got up to get the sugar dish off the counter. He loaded his pile of fluff with several spoonfuls.
Things have not much improved since then. The texture of the fluff is somewhat unsettling—the whipped topping is creamy and light but you still kind of have to chew it, and the tiny bits of cranberry get stuck in your teeth while the marshmallows squish helplessly between them. The cranberry is bitter, the grapes are sweet. The marshmallows have the distinctly artificial taste of the factory machine that first stretched corn syrup into that cylindrical shape. I have not, in my many years of eating this dish, been able to determine why someone thought to combine these flavors (probably in some post-war women’s magazine’s recipe section, undoubtedly themed around Cool Whip and its myriad uses).
But every year that I’m at my grandparents’ condo for a holiday, I dutifully slop a ladleful of cranberry fluff onto my plate and plop myself down at their oak table. I shovel a few bites of cranberry fluff into my mouth, thinking wistfully of Snickers salad, grimacing all the while.
It’s hardly the holidays without it.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.