Colorful in every sense, the iconic American cranberry has a fascinating history and an essential place at the Thanksgiving table.
Americans consume some 400 million pounds of cranberries a year, 20 percent during Thanksgiving week.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
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At Thanksgiving, spooning gorgeous, crimson cranberry sauce onto a plate piled high with roasted turkey is as much a part of the meal as sitting down with friends and family. Tart and lively, cranberries bring new dimension and balance to the rich, stodgy holiday food.
As part of a menu that replicates traditional favorites year after year, the cranberry sauce is also a bright spot for creative cooks who like to tinker with recipes. It’s easy to serve one simple version (if it’s from the can, ridges intact, please) and another that features such delicious ingredients as apple cider, orange zest, dried cherries or fresh ginger.
There’s symbolism at work in this recipe, too: After all, cranberries are as American as the holiday itself. While food historians still squabble about whether they were served at the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621, it’s certain that the Pilgrims tasted the berries soon after their arrival.
The cranberry is one of just three fruits native to North America (along with Concord grapes and blueberries), and it played an important role in Native American culture. Mixed with deer meat, it went into a dense survival food called pemmican; it was used as medicine to counteract poison and infection; and it provided rich crimson dye for coloring rugs, blankets and clothing.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
Naturally, when tribes along the East Coast introduced the cranberry to European settlers, the newcomers instantly saw something of value. Adapting them to their needs, colonists stewed cranberries to make sauces for wild game and featured them in sweet tarts for dessert. They also discovered the berries’ healthful properties and stored them aboard New England ships as a source of vitamin C to help prevent sailors from getting scurvy.
In 1677, as a gesture of good will—or maybe just to prove that they’d discovered something dramatically superior to the small, poorly flavored European cranberry—the Massachusetts colonists sent 10 barrels of cranberries to King Charles II along with cracked Indian corn and cod.
Today, many of the regions where the berry was first farmed, such as Massachusetts and New Jersey, remain large producers. As efficient growing methods have increased output, marketers have found new ways to make the cranberry appeal to consumers. These days, it’s featured in juices, cereals, baked goods and even in salads and salsas.
Packed with antioxidants, the cranberry also has a growing reputation as a health powerhouse, capable of increasing our natural defenses to everything from aging to ulcers. Americans now consume some 400 million pounds of cranberries each year—20 percent during the November holiday. But as you cook up Thanksgiving’s easiest and arguably most important recipe, the cranberry sauce, remember that this deliciously tart berry is worth enjoying all year.